We take it for granted that the world is divided into time zones and that travelling any significant distance east or west will mean changing our clocks. The current system has many advantages as well as a few quirks, but some argue that it is no longer fit for purpose in today’s world.
If it’s midday in London, in must be 8am in Rio de Janeiro. This kind of calculation is part of everyday life for anyone who travels or deals with friends, family, or business partners on the other side of the world. But it wasn’t always possible to make calculations like these with any certainty. Travellers in the first half of the 19th century had no rules to rely on. It was only as communications and transport infrastructure connected the world more closely that anyone saw the need to put a globally agreed system of time zones in place.
From the mid-19th century onwards, the world rapidly got a lot smaller. The United States transcontinental railway opened in 1869, bridging the country’s vast expanses. Between 1860 and 1880, the Indian rail network grew nearly twentyfold, linking the most important seaports with the inner regions of the British colony. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 reduced travel time between Europe and Asia from months to weeks. Meanwhile, the first transatlantic telegraphic communication had already taken place in 1858, relaying information in minutes.
But despite the physical connectedness, getting from A to B in a timely manner was no small feat. As internationally standardised time zones didn’t yet exist, clocks were set to local time according to the sun’s zenith at noon. The United States, for example, had more than 300 time zones and 75 different railway times. This lack of harmonised time posed a real challenge for any traveller eager to catch their train or steamer on time. It wasn’t until the Canadian Sandford Fleming presented his concept of time zones in 1879 that a universal global system was established.
First implemented in America, Fleming’s system was agreed upon at the International Meridian Conference in 1884. However, the scientifically correct system he proposed, which divides our globe into 15-degree increments, is not the system we see today. Timelines resemble zigzag patterns, rather than following longitudinal symmetry.
Timelines and also time zones have always been subject to change for practical, political, and economic reasons. In an attempt to conserve fuel and crank up war production, for example, Germany became the first country to introduce Daylight Saving Time (DST) in April 1916. Within a few weeks Britain, France, Italy, and Russia followed suit.
Controlling time not only brings money; it also means power. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, one of the first assertions of the Kremlin’s might was to turn the clocks to Moscow time – a clear statement that manifested the peninsula’s split from Ukraine and its incorporation into the federation. Communist China introduced a single time zone in 1949. The country, which is geographically spread across five time zones, is all set to Beijing time, which makes sense for the people living in the administrative centre but for the people in the western provinces, it means that clock time and solar time are widely divergent.
Out of sync
Political and economic interests aside, the choice of time zone can have a major impact on people’s lives. Spain, with the exception of the Canary Islands, switched to Central European Time (CET) in 1940. Despite its westernmost beaches nearly touching the 10th degree west, hands on Spanish clocks ticked in lockstep with Berlin and German occupied territory. Spain never changed back after the war, but the extreme discrepancy between time told and physical reality is believed by some to have a detrimental impact on productivity, with sleep deprivation causing accidents, sick leave, and lack of motivation. They argue Spain should shift back to its “rational” time zone.
Having a time zone out of sync with your physical reality is not the only way in which this artificial manipulation of time can have a detrimental effect. In a connected world, in theory, companies with a global footprint can take advantage of time zones to work around the clock. But if working hours in different countries do not overlap, resolving issues that would take only minutes in a local office can take a day in teams separated by several time zones. Often employees compensate for the time gap by making themselves available beyond normal office hours. Over the long run, this can also have a negative effect on health.
Better off without?
With so much controversy and many exceptions, why not dispose of the concept of time zones altogether? “It’s confusing, it’s complex, and it’s the cause of errors,” say applied economist Professor Steve Hanke and physicist Professor Dick Henry. The faculty colleagues at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, make a strong case for doing away with time zones. It may sound radical but, as they point out, it’s already happening: in aviation Universal Time (UT) has been used for decades. The International Space Station, satellite navigation, marine stations, meteorologists, the military, short-wave radio, international web portals, email – all use Universal Time. In banking, securities regulators require Universal Time to time stamp all trades. “Wherever errors aren’t an option, where you need unambiguous communication, Universal Time is the answer,” says Henry.
Coordinated Universal Time replaced GMT in 1972 as the governing reference for time. It’s only in civic life that time zones still play a role, and even there, as Hanke and Henry point out, they can cause confusion for travellers. Anyone who travels between Europe and South America will know the statement at the beginning of this article is not selfevident. Rio de Janeiro could be three or four hours behind London depending on the time of year, because Rio currently does not shift to DST. Mistakes are therefore easily made. But would the general public accept a move towards a system where, for people living far from the meridian, the sun rises at 21:00 and the working day starts at 23:00?
“Time zones aren’t natural. There is only one time,” says Henry. “Changing the system is possible. It would be like the introduction of the metric system – there would be a period of transition, but people would adapt and accept it in the end.”
The timing could be right. In the 19th century it was railway companies, not a governing body, that first reformed time to meet their needs. Today we’re undergoing another time/space compression as technology shrinks the world further. “The introduction of a single time is the next logical step in a digitally connected world,” says Henry. The widespread use of Universal Time shows the process is well under way. But who will take the next step? “The Swiss watch industry could lead the way,” suggests Hanke. “They would certainly benefit from an increased demand for watches with 24-hour faces.”