Back In Time: Time Zones | Alyssa J Freitas: Back In Time: Time Zones

January 23, 2019

Back In Time: Time Zones

We're always saying that we need more time. That the only thing we all have the same amount of is time. With all the talk about time, I really never thought much about the measurement of this elusive resource. For this month's back in time post, we're going back in time to the measurement of time itself.
Click to read now or pin to save for later! Have you ever wondered how we started to measure time? And how people deal with living in one time zone and working in another? The answers are all in this back in time post!

Getting our act together

For a while (like, a really long while), people were running around without all being on the same page of what time it was. This didn't cause too much issue, mostly because people weren't traveling too far, until business was at stake. And you know that when business is at stake, the business people do what they need to to get things done. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was established to aid in naval navigation, and was popularized in the first half of the 1800s when it was used by the British railways. If they wanted people to be able to take their trains and to transport goods efficiently, everyone needed to know when the heck to be there. By 1880, Britain legally made GMT the standard.
In America, it took us a little longer to get things right. While the railroads were still the ones leading the show, they couldn't agree on which time zone to use. Each railroad ran on a different time, depending on its headquarters or where its most important stations were. Train stations would have multiple different clocks with different times for each railroad company that serviced the station. Finally, in 1883 the US decided on standard time zones, and had "the day of two noons" when the clocks were reset at standard noon time. The US made it official in 1918 with an act of congress. So we've really only had our time zones established for the last 100 years.

A founding father, because there's always one involved

Another wrinkle to our story is the idea of daylight savings time. Since it seems like every back in time post I write has to include a revolutionary figure, say hello to Ben Franklin.
When Franklin was in France, getting up to all kinds of mischief, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris in 1784. He explains that he and some friends were hanging out and talking about oil lamps, and they began to discuss if there was any real savings from using oil lamps since they required a lot of oil and didn't provide much light. He tells the editor, "I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly." A man after my own heart.

He goes on to say that he made an amazing, undisputed discovery when he was accidentally awoken at 6am. When the sun rises it gives off light - imagine! Franklin does a few calculations and realizes that there could be a great savings if the people of Paris would just get up with the rising of the sun instead of staying awake into the night and using candles and oil lamps. He thinks that once this has been explained everyone will jump on board, and those who don't should be taxed for keeping their shutters closed.

He proposes guards to keep people from buying so many candles and shooting cannons in the streets when the sun rises to wake everyone up. And for his great discovery and suggestions, he asks nothing in return. He only wants the acknowledgement that he is the one to have realized that when the sun rises it gives off light. It must have been he who discovered it, he argues, because there is no way the economical people of Paris would have slept through the morning if they knew they could have saved their candles by getting up earlier.

So what's my point in telling you this story? Well, you'll hear people say that Ben Franklin proposed daylight savings time and I wanted you to be well informed that is not the case. He made some great jokes about saving energy, but as you can see, this is far from a true scientific assertion that we should change our clocks. In actuality, it was first proposed in 1907 to try and save coal during the war. 

Time zones today

Have you seen this scene from The West Wing? It's the perfect illustration that although we have been so good as to come up with time zones and to institute daylight savings time, there can still be confusion. 

From reading stories of others who live in one time zone and work or go to school in another (or even just have appointments in another zone), it can be super challenging and there's not really much of a good way to get around it. Quite a lot of people will refer to one zone as "fast time" and the other as "slow time" to distinguish. They'll keep a clock on the wall that's in "home time" and their watch in "work time." Moral of the story? Be glad if you don't live in that situation, and know you're pretty cool if you do.

Have you ever had trouble switching between time zones? What else would you like to learn about from my back in time posts?

-AJF
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