The History and Use of Time Zones

5 clocks for the trading time zones

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Prior to the late nineteenth century, timekeeping was a purely local phenomenon. Each town would set their clocks to noon when the sun reached its zenith each day. A clockmaker or town clock would be the "official" time and the citizens would set their pocket watches and clocks to the time of the town. Enterprising citizens would offer their services as mobile clock setters, carrying a watch with the accurate time to adjust the clocks in customer's homes on a weekly basis. Travel between cities meant having to change one's pocket watch upon arrival.

However, once railroads began to operate and move people rapidly across great distances, time became much more critical. In the early years of the railroads, the schedules were very confusing because each stop was based on a different local time. The standardization of time was essential to the efficient operation of railroads.

The History of the Standardization of Time Zones

In 1878, Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming proposed the system of worldwide time zones that we use today. He recommended that the world be divided into twenty-four time zones, each spaced 15 degrees of longitude apart. Since the earth rotates once every 24 hours and there are 360 degrees of longitude, each hour the earth rotates one-twenty-fourth of a circle or 15 degrees of longitude. Sir Fleming's time zones were heralded as a brilliant solution to a chaotic problem worldwide.

United States railroad companies began utilizing Fleming's standard time zones on November 18, 1883. In 1884 an International Prime Meridian Conference was held in Washington D.C. to standardize time and select the prime meridian. The conference selected the longitude of Greenwich, England as zero degrees longitude and established the 24 time zones based on the prime meridian. Although the time zones had been established, not all countries switched immediately. Though most U.S. states began to adhere to the Pacific, Mountain, Central, and Eastern time zones by 1895, Congress didn't make the use of these time zones mandatory until the Standard Time Act of 1918.

How Different Regions of the World Use Time Zones

Today, many countries operate on variations of the time zones proposed by Sir Fleming. All of China (which should span five time zones) uses a single time zone— eight hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (known by the abbreviation UTC, based on the time zone running through Greenwich at 0 degrees longitude). Australia uses three time zones—its central time zone is a half-hour ahead of its designated time zone. Several countries in the Middle East and South Asia also utilize half-hour time zones.

Since time zones are based on segments of longitude and lines of longitude narrow at the poles, scientists working at the North and South Poles simply use UTC time. Otherwise, Antarctica would be divided into 24 very thin time zones!

The time zones of the United States are standardized by Congress and although the lines were drawn to avoid populated areas, sometimes they've been moved to avoid complications. There are nine time zones in the U.S. and its territories, they include Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, Alaska, Hawaii-Aleutian, Samoa, Wake Island, and Guam.

With the growth of the Internet and global communication and commerce, some have advocated a new worldwide time system.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "The History and Use of Time Zones." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Matt. (2023, April 5). The History and Use of Time Zones. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "The History and Use of Time Zones." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).