IN THE ZONE
Time zones are a necessary evil, but isn’t it about time we got rid of them completely?
TIME, AN ASTRO-PHYSICIST WILL TELL YOU , is relative. But anyone who has to phone the other side of the world, or ensure they make a flight connection, can tell you that. They will have experienced the archane complexity of time zones—jumping forward, jumping back, time travel without the dinosaurs or interstellar spaceflight but with plenty of headaches.
Time zones have become such a part of the fabric of a globalized world it’s hard to imagine they once never existed. And yet they’re only 140 years old, this year in fact. Indeed, back when most people lived and died in the village they were also born in, time was very much a local affair. Villagers could call the time whatever they wanted, because everyone they knew lived by roughly the same time. And, certainly, time was very local. The time in one village—to many little more than an estimate relative to the movement of the sun across the sky, since clocks were few and watches only for the very wealthy—could be different to that of a village just a few hours ride away.
It was technology—specifically the advent of the railways—that required the imposition of a time zone; one either regional or, if the territory was small enough to make a single zone functional, national. In 1870, the U.S. had 75 different railway times across the country—this was when a city like St. Louis had six time zones itself.
It was a mess. To make the railways practicable time had to be further regulated.
For a good while what was called ‘railway time’ might have existed as distinct from the local time you’d always known; but it was only, well, a matter of time before the former subsumed the latter. The Scottishcanadian railway engineer Sandford Fleming, the man who in 1879 first proposed a global system of time zones linked to the Greenwich Meridian in London, argued that the “twin agencies of steam and electricity” had vastly reduced distances and made such regulation necessary.
“You didn’t have to travel far by today’s terms—a couple of hundred miles—for solar time to have changed, so [without regulation] co-ordination quickly became impossible,” says
Dr. Louise Devoy, senior curator at the Royal Observatory, in Greenwich, where the Greenwich Meridian Line is literally situated. It was because
Great Britain had long published the navigator’s bible ‘The Nautical Almanac’, which used the Greenwich Meridian as its reference point, and then pioneered the railways, that the meridian became the ‘starting point’ for time zones around the globe too, much to the chagrin of the French in particular.
“Attitudes to time zones were very varied and debated right up until the 1960s,” adds Devoy. “And there are still elements of it that are illogical. In a perfect world you’d have 24 time zones —picture the Earth as a great orange with each segment a zone for each hour. But if you look at the map of time zones you often see different countries within what would be the same segment and yet in different time zones. The creation of time zones have tended to be very human decisions.”
Often these don’t make much sense. Indeed, there are currently 38 different local times around the world, not 24, as one might expect. Russia is a territory so vast it has 11 time zones alone, although it has sometimes adhered to only nine. Yet China, also vast—3.6m square miles vast, in fact—has just one, a product, arguably, of the Communist Party’s desire for unified control.
Time zones don’t even operate in whole hours. Some parts of the world are several hours-and-a-half apart. Sometimes they’re just half an hour apart—as, since the dictatorship adopted Pyongyang Time in 2015,
North Korea is from China and Japan, a decision that perhaps smacks of nationalistic grand-standing. But then India and its neighbour Nepal are just 15 minutes apart. Time zones make for some batty disparities: Eucla in southern Australia is eight hours and 45 minutes ahead of UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time—technically the successor to Greenwich Mean Time— though the Northern Territory is nineand-a-half hours ahead.
So why not just do away with time zones altogether, replacing them with one global time zone? Indeed, some are pushing for just that. Steve Hanke, a professor of applied economics at John Hopkins University, Baltimore and a senior fellow at the CATO Institute think tank, together with colleague Dick Henry, professor of physics and astronomy, has proposed a single global time zone. It smacks of a kind of Star Trek future in which there are no nation states—in which what prevents us from thinking of
humanity as a united, global species has been consigned to history. It makes sense from a scientific standpoint at least: in physics, after all, there’s only one time.
Their proposal is based on the current measure of UTC, which operates through zones up to 12 hours ahead or behind, tied to the 24 hour clock, but allowing individual states to choose their zone. Hanke and Henry, however, want to go a step further and make it the same time the world over. This, they say, makes perfect sense: communications, trade, finance, travel, logistics all would be much, much smoother.
This is, after all, why American Samoa jumped across the international dateline in 2011, thus officially never seeing December 30th of that year—so it could be better in sync with Australia and New Zealand, the nations it does most trade with. Not for nothing did General Helmuth von Moltke in 1891 claim that the reason he’d won two wars was that he’d applied UTC to the German railways, and hence to the supply of troops.
“Time zones are a function of distance, of moving slowly between one point and another,” explains Hanke. “But with the rapid movement of people and communications, local time zones became obsolete. We once had hundreds of thousands of time zones around the world, and then we had 38. Our proposal is simply to go from 38 to one, and for the same logical reason. This is a small world. The speed of travel, of communications, has made those 38 obsolete.”
“There are currently 38 DIFFERENT LOCAL TIMES around the world, not 24, as one might expect. RUSSIA is a territory so vast it has 11 time zones alone. CHINA, also vast, has just ONE .”
ARGUABLY, MUCH AS THE RAILWAYS ushered in time zones, so now another technology, the internet, and the more global perspective it has fostered, invites the adoption of one global time zone too. It’s an idea already in practice too: since the early 1970s airline pilots have used Universal Time wherever they are in flight, to help save aircraft crashing into each other.
But it’s the perception at the local level that’s the problem—and not just in the sense of coming to grips with the conceptual change in how we measure our days; under the single global time proposal, the working day on the east coast of the United States, for example, would start at 1400 hours and end around 2200 hours; in Australia the day would begin at 0100 hours. The working day would still be conducted throughout the local period of daylight—its hours just wouldn’t be called the same.
Sure, what we choose to label a particular moment in the revolution of the Earth, and of its passage around the sun, may only be a social construct, easily changed on paper—or on your watch. Different parts of the world, after all, still use different calendars, such that it’s 2019 by the Gregorian calendar—a western, Christian measurement—meanwhile it’s 1426 by the Bengali calendar, and the world keeps turning. In fact, Hanke and Henry have proposed a new calendar too—they see date and time as being the same issue—one in which every date falls on the same day of the week every year.
But it’s indicative of just how much we live by the clock—when we get up or go to bed, when we eat, our commute, our bedtime—and give structure to our day by the clock too, that what looks to be a simple re-labelling may feel so unnatural as to be virtually impossible. That’s even if Hanke argues we’d soon get used to the change, much as many of us have the shift from fahrenheit to celsius, or miles to kilometres—arguably both much bigger switches.
“You get people saying the likes of ‘does this mean I have to open my shop at midnight?’. But no, our circadian clock fights against that. We’d still live by our natural rhythms,” says Hanke. “A single time zone wouldn’t do away with the circadian clock we’re all hard-wired with. It just means that everyone’s watch would show the same position on the dial. The transition wouldn’t take long – we’d soon get used to it, though for some it is a hard thing to grasp at first. The problem is that historically time zones have tended to be a political issue. Sometimes nations are attached to their time zone in the way they are to their currency.”
It’s for this reason that there is typically major debate surrounding proposals to amend zoning. Last year the president of the European Union, Jean-claude Juncker, called for an end to summer and winter times across the block—legislation is now proceeding though Brussels. “Clock-changing must stop,” said Juncker, as he announced what is effectively a step towards a single European time zone.
It will be interesting to see how far Juncker gets. Likewise, President Dmitry Medvedev made moves towards the consolidation of Russian time in 2010 but then four years later the Russian parliament decided against it. It was less bothered about the change of time zones it imposed on Crimea when Russia annexed it the same year. Similarly, a campaign two years ago for the UK to permanently adopt Daylight Savings Time—also known as British Summer Time—and so put it in the same time zone as the rest of the European continent, just 21 miles away at its nearest point, was rebuffed by then Scottish Parliament’s
First Minister. Why? For local reasons: it would mean that, in the north of the country, the mornings would be light until 10am during the winter (though, of course, it would enjoy much lighter evenings).
Certainly there’s recognition that doing away with time zones—or at least reducing them—brings economic benefits; Indonesia, for example, has proposed cutting back its zones from three to two, because it figures it will be better for business. But good business sense is not always enough to trump the human reaction. And sometimes that’s a deeply human reaction: the rising and setting of the sun—more specifically our exposure to daylight—affects said circadian rhythms and thus our sleep patterns; the more one is forced to live by a less localised time zone, it’s argued, the bigger the impact on the quality of our sleep—which has a knock-on effect for health, education, productivity and, all told, the national well-being.
In some places that’s making for a call for more, not fewer, time zones. Take the situation in India, a vast nation, stretching 1,864 miles east to west and covering more than a billion people – it has a single time zone (IST or Indian Standard Time) as a legacy of British colonial rule. The sun rises in the east of the country almost two hours earlier than it does in the west. Those who start their days in darkness use more electricity – a cost that would be spared were India to split its territory across two zones.
But the cost is more than financial. Take the school day, for example— this starts at roughly the same time across India, and yet children who experience lighter evenings invariably have a longer waking day; or, in other words, they get less sleep.
Studies suggest these children are less likely complete primary and middle school. Small wonder then that, while the suggestion that two time zones, separated by an hour, has been made by researchers before – and in 2002 was rejected by the government on the grounds that it would cause too much confusion for the railways – last year even India’s official timekeepers at the National Physical Laboratory recommended it.
There’s similar talk in Spain— a recognition that the country is stuck in the wrong time zone, in line with that of Poland and Hungary, leaving its populace always tired. It’s been argued that this lies behind Spain’s comparatively high suicide rate, and low birth rate. And if you want politics, try the fact that Spain’s odd time zone was chosen by the fascist General Franco in 1942 as a show of allegiance to Nazi Germany.
Of course, a setting of the working day by local solar measurement, combined with adoption of a global time zone, would solve such issues. If only we could get our collective heads around the idea. “It does sound very extreme,” says the Royal Observatory’s Louise Devoy when it is put to her. “As a culture we’re deeply attached to the meaning of certain times – and so it becomes a weird concept to get to bed at, say, two o’clock in the afternoon. As such I can’t see this idea being taken up any time soon.”
Of course, Hanke disagrees.
The single global time zone is, he says, little more than a return to the way local matters were handled before the railways, with the addition of a world clock ensuring that international affairs continued unheeded: there would be working time and there would be universal time. This is pretty much what already happens in China.
It, recall, is a huge land with one time zone. So, although officially the single zone set up means some institutions and businesses, and so people, have to operate at odd hours—precisely what many fear when they hear talk of a single time zone—unofficially many Chinese tend to set their daily schedules by something approximating solar time and overlook the statesanctioned time until it’s needed.
“Local customs would still be recognised—in some places shops would open earlier and in others later. There would be a distribution. Just because there’s a single global unified time zone doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for complete diversity at the local level,” explains Hanke. “People will still get up when the sun comes up and still go to bed at night. There’s just no point tinkering with the messy current time zone arrangements any more. We should just go for it and make the change.”
He concedes that getting the world’s nations to all agree to doing so is a stretch. Certainly, previous, comparatively trivial attempts at similar ideas have not fared well:
Swatch’s introduction in 1999 of what it called Internet Time, with watches that displayed local solar time but also measured a day out in 1,000 ‘beats’, was phased out just two years later. And some have voiced concern that it’s the final step towards a truly 24 hour society—in which your colleague on the other side of the planet won’t think anything of calling you in the middle of what is your night (and, if he’s more considerate, will have to calculate what the sun is doing where you are to avoid doing so; which is to say that he’ll have to use some kind of time zoning).
Just moving clocks back or forward an hour twice a year with the seasons is enough to befuddle many of us—not having to do so is one good reason to live in the Middle East, which, like much, but not all, of South America, and much, but not all, of Africa, ignores daylight saving time. Truly, this inconsistency is all enough to make your head spin.
It’s enough to make you long for a single time zone. Rest easy. Hanke reckons it’s going to happen anyway. It’s just the way of the world now.
“Getting international agreement might be possible but I think it’s usage that’s going to call the tune,” he says. “Things are ordered spontaneously, by human actions, because they’re desirable, because they’re beneficial. There was no centralised design for language, money or markets.
They came about because they’re useful, they make sense. And the same is true of universal time.
“The fact is that a universal time zone just creeps into the technology we use and has to because otherwise there’s chaos in the system—it’s already what allows the internet to function. And we can expect that a universal time zone will naturally creep into so many areas that we’ll adopt it without having even realised it,” Hanke adds. “Back with the railways it took 20 years for the process of coordinating time zones to be effected. And we’ll see the same with the idea of a single global time zone too. It’s coming. And, really, I just don’t see any valid argument against it.”
“AS A CULTURE we’re deeply attached to the meaning of CERTAIN TIMES –and so it becomes a weird concept to get to bed at, say, TWO O’CLOCK inthe afternoon.”
Pilots useuniversal Time wherever they are in flight