Editorial One World, One Time
The road to universal time.
Upon my return to Switzerland after an excellent Christmas vacation with my family (whom I see but once a year in these complicated times), I was obliged to take an unusually long train ride in order to connect from Zurich to Geneva, a trip that normally takes just a little over three hours. Now, on any other day, a 6-hour journey through the beautiful Swiss countryside might not seem like much of an imposition, but as I had just come off a 13-hour flight with quite a lot of luggage, I saw things rather differently. While ensconced comfortably (if somewhat grumpily) on my train, gazing out on the rolling landscapes of Fribourg, I was thinking of how train mishaps have shaped the way we approach time — specifically standardised time and time zones.
Before the mid-19th century, different cities all kept their own local time, determined by solar noon at their geographical position. This meant that cities more than a few degrees of longitude apart would have significant differences in local time. For example, Zurich being 2.3985 degrees of longitude further east than Geneva, solar noon (when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, overcast winter skies notwithstanding) is experienced 9 minutes and 35.64 seconds earlier in Zurich than in Geneva. It’s annoying enough trying to coordinate Zoom appointment times; imagine if we didn’t have standardised time zones and had to factor in little time differences like this. Inconveniences aside, it’s easy to see how this lack of time standardisation might lead to even more serious consequences.
In 1853, a catastrophic rail accident occurred in the United States, when two trains travelling towards each other on the same track collided because their respective train officials had their watches set to different times. There were 14 fatalities in this accident. Following this tragedy, rail schedules were coordinated according to a single reference time, and the General Time Convention was established — a committee consisting of the different US rail companies in order to implement a common rail time throughout the country.
Over two decades later, in 1876, Canadian railway surveyor and engineer Sandford Fleming was travelling through Ireland and missed a train because the schedule had been misprinted, putting “pm” instead of “am” after a listed time. Justifiably irked by this mistake, which resulted in him having to spend the night stranded in a train station, he came up with the idea of splitting the world into 24 time zones based on a 24-hour clock and promoted his system heavily at various conferences. Fleming was a key figure in convening the International Prime Meridian Conference of 1884, where the Universal Time system was adopted.
Throughout the world, there was initial resistance against a central reference system of time. As early as 1840, rail companies in Great Britain had tried to implement a standard system based on London time, but various cities refused to adopt “railway time” as they resented being told how to conduct their lives by a central authority (sound familiar to anyone?) even if it led to a better regulated and more efficient national system. Eventually, however, countries all over the world saw the sense in adopting unified time, leading to the conventional system we have today.
It gives me cause for optimism when I reflect on how mankind has always been able to take unfortunate events and learn from them in order to create better systems for the future. It may not seem like it at the moment, whilst we continue to work through a global pandemic that has vastly overstayed its welcome (not that it was ever welcome in the first place…), but just like the trains from Zurich to Geneva, we will get there in the end, despite all obstacles.
Stay healthy and stay safe, WorldTempus family!