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If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Thursday

By Allan Eastman

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Midnight in the Oasis

The Prime Meridian at Greenwich, London

The Prime Meridian (location marked above) was drawn through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, in England.

©iStockphoto.com/Phooey

The solution of the Longitude Problem helped fuel the vast expansion of world trade and commerce into the early industrial age. In parallel, because of it, the world was conceptually – if not officially – being thought of as a globe consisting of 24 hours.

But the fact of the matter was that well into the 19th Century, Time was generally considered a strictly local affair. Time was measured from apparent Local Solar Time wherever you were. Therefore, in any 15 degree arc of the planet, the time could vary by up to an hour. It was 9:15 here but a little further east, it was already 9:18 and a little further west, it was still 9:09.

Midnight in the Oasis was literally, Midnight in the Oasis.

Now this wasn’t a terrifically big problem while the world still moved at the pace of walking feet or at best, that of a good horse. Most people did not travel any large distances during the course of their day to day life. Commercial transport was measured in months and weeks and days, not hours and minutes.

And then came the railroads. Life speeded up.

Early passengers were terrified as the steam engine and its open carriages puffed through the countryside at a heart stopping 20 miles an hour. It was thought that the human body and psyche wouldn’t be able to handle being flung around at such a velocity.

Imagine trying to set up and maintain a regular schedule of train transport when every place it travelled to used a different local time. How could you possibly schedule a train that traveled east for 2 hours to arrive in a place where it was already 2 hours and 12 minutes later?

After various attempts to devise a practicable schedule, the English in 1847 finally gave up and every Railway company agreed to set their clocks to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). For the first time, a country had a unified time standard. People still had to figure out the difference between their local time and GMT but if you were standing on the platform at the right GMT time anywhere in the UK, the train should pull in. And rather quickly, people came to accept the railroad clock as their own local standard time.

The vast physical distances in North America exacerbated the problem. Local Solar Time could be up to 4 hours different from the mainland’s coast to coast. The multitude of early railway companies in the United States all attempted to standardize local time on their routes but without coordinating with each other so by the 1870s, there were at least 80 different time standards operating across the country. The whole industrial transport system was completely out of sync.

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North of the border, a Scottish-born Canadian engineer named Sandford Fleming had been involved in surveying and laying the track for the single transcontinental railroad spanning the country, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fleming’s logical mind was offended by the confusing and illogical time systems that made railroad scheduling so difficult but the huge size of the country made the use of any single time standard like GMT unfeasible.

What Fleming eventually came up with in 1879 was the idea that the world should be divided into 24 equal Time Zones, each an hour separated from the next and – this is the brilliant bit – within each Time Zone, the time would be the same. Local Solar Time would be ignored for the purposes of accurate timekeeping. The time would be calibrated at the central meridian of each time zone and every other point within the 15 degree wide arc would display exactly the same time. In one stroke, all of the scheduling problems related to apparent local time would disappear.

Fleming pushed his idea by petitioning governments, by writing to newspapers and through public appeals. His vogue idea began to gather momentum and in 1884, an International Prime Meridian Conference was convened in Washington, DC to implement Fleming’s plan.

The key to the Time Zone Plan was the need for a Prime Meridian – a starting point for measuring both the 360 degrees around the planet and for Time to be calibrated from. Several countries lobbied for the honor but England’s case was thought to be the strongest. This was not only because at that time England was the dominant military and commercial Imperial power but because its trading fleet was bigger than the rest of the world’s put together.

Accordingly, the Prime Meridian – 0 degrees longitude – was drawn through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and Greenwich Mean Time became the baseline against which the rest of the world’s clocks were set.

Sandford Fleming was awarded a Knighthood for his pains.

When you think about it, the Prime Meridian Conference was really one of the watershed events in human history. For the first time ever, there was one agreed upon official standard set up for the entire human race. Interesting that it should concern a subject that had so captivated people since their earliest days of awareness – Time itself. It appeared that civilization’s long struggle to define and measure Time had finally been vanquished by the new champion of Science.

But no conception derived by human beings is ever perfect so there was one bizarre little effect lurking inside the worldwide Time Zone conception.

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