Have you ever pondered how we came up with our system of timekeeping? It’s a peculiar measurement system, isn’t it? We have divided our daily cycle into 24 equal portions. The vast majority of our clocks are calibrated into 12 equal segments and subdivided into 60 smaller segments, with each of those smaller segments calibrated into 60 even smaller segments apiece. All of this seems normal, until you realize that this system has been coursely shoehorned into the rotational and orbital patterns of our planet.
Long ago, the people who wanted to divide our days into segments came up with hours. Most of them calibrated the segments from the average position of the Sun’s shadow onto a sundial or similar tool. The segmented portions or hours occurred differently, depending upon the locale or city in which each sundial was placed. For instance, noon appears differently in Rome than it does in Athens. The same can be said anywhere else on Earth. Toronto’s noon is different from Vancouver’s noontime which is different from Chicago’s noontime which, in turn varies from that in Honolulu.
We can see that this is so, because of the spherical nature of our planet. It also goes without saying that noontime is different in places that aren’t all that far apart. Noontime in Omaha and Lincoln in Nebraska also happen at different times. For most of the history of timekeeping, every town had their own way of reckoning when noontime happened. This didn’t matter much until the development of high speed transportation that travels from West to East or even city to city in a North-South configuration. What was a railroad to do about all those various times when trying to develop some sort of intelligent departure and arrival schedule?
Leave it to a Scottish-Canadian to come up with a proposal to iron the problem out, worldwide. Sir Sandford Fleming was a highly esteemed engineer and inventor. He surveyed and authored a large number of maps. Fleming engineered and laid out much of the colonial Canadian railroad system and was a co-founder of the Royal Canadian Institute, a scientific organization. It was at a conference being held at the Royal Canadian Institute on February 8, 1879 that Sir Fleming proposed global adoption of Universal Standard Time.
Actually, Fleming started hatching his plans for Standard Time Zones a few years earlier, in 1876. He missed a train in Ireland because its schedule listed PM instead of AM. Fleming designed a system based on a single 24-hour configuration to be used by the entire world. The time point would be at the center of the planet and not linked to any particular surface meridian. He called his system “Cosmic Time”.
Sir Fleming continued to preach the virtues of Cosmic Time at various major international engineering conferences. His idea finally became the root basis of a system adopted by the International Meridian Conference of 1884. The new version of Universal Time Coordinated incorporated the general outline of Cosmic Time, but refused the instatement of Fleming’s particular, even division of the Earth’s time zones. The conference stated that each of the 24 zones would be overruled by local political concerns. The arbitrary institution of his entire system was outside of its authority.
One by one, the world’s nations adopted the policy of Universal Standard Time and used the Time Zone method of determining local time. By 1929 nearly all countries had instituted time zones based on Universal Standard Time.
Some geographical areas, namely Newfoundland and India have a half-hour deviation from UTC. Also, some nations, like India and China have instituted a single time zone for their respective nations even though their territories cover far more than 15° of longitude.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the actual idea of 24 time zones was invented in 1858 as a concept by Italian mathematician Quirico Filopanti in his book Miranda! . The idea was unknown outside of the covers of his book until long after his death, so his idea didn’t influence Standard Time adoption.