A world watch tour

The geopolitics of world time


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March 2018

The geopolitics of world time

In the late nineteenth century, dividing the world into slices, even if only for time-keeping purposes, raised serious problems between nations and empires each of which claimed that theirs was the one where the sun never set.


eaching a common accord on a universal system of time zones, necessitated by the advent of mechanised transport, railways, telegraphy, travel, exchanges and global commerce, proved to be a real geopolitical headache. So it was that watchmaking found itself at the vanguard of this first phase in burgeoning globalisation, for thanks to its mechanical mastery of intervals of time, it held the solution.

Had it not already demonstrated that two centuries previously, when its precision had made the English rulers of the waves?

If the nations, republics, kingdoms, principalities, confetti states and empires of the nineteenth century nevertheless succeeded with relative ease in reaching agreement on how the 24-hour pie was to be sliced up, the reason was that for once, politicians bowed to the railways on the issue.

When, in the 1880s, it was noticed that in the United States, there were 49 different official railway timetables, the authorities decided something had to be done to simplify things. It already had been done in England, where timetables had been standardised back in 1840. In 1883, Standard Railway Time came into effect in the United States. For reasons both practical and scientific, it was aligned with the Greenwich meridian, even though it could have been aligned with that of Washington. An alignment with London?

Conçue au XIXème siècle par le pendulier russe Ivan Yurin, cette étonnante horloge arbore de très nombreux cadrans (67) indiquant l’heure à travers l’ancien Empire russe, y compris l’heure de villes et de zones aujourd’hui disparues. Elle est exposée au Peterhof Palace de Saint-Pétersbourg.

This was an affront to sovereignty that the politicians would never have accepted without pressure from the railways, the ‘practical’ thinkers, and the watchmakers, the ‘scientific’ thinkers. One year later, in October 1884, the then American president, Chester A. Arthur, opened the International Meridian Conference that, three weeks later, agreed to adopt a world time standard – which initially concerned only 25 countries (France did not toe the Greenwich line until 1898 – and even then did not call it by its name). The conference turned out to be a boon to watchmakers. Already the purveyor of precision chronometers to railways and ships, it was now going to be able to equip travellers, tradespeople, telegraphists and globetrotters.