Do You Know What Time It Is?
Chester A. Arthur gets a lot of flak. He deserves most of it. If you’re president, you really shouldn’t sell off wagonloads of priceless White House furniture at auction. But one accomplishment of Arthur’s presidency that gets glossed over in favor of criticism of the “he owned eighty pairs of pants!” closet-shaming variety is that he convened the International Meridian Conference of 1884, with the goal of nailing down “exactly what time is it, anyway?” Although Arthur, I’m sure, put it in much more elegant terms.
The International Meridian Conference designated the Greenwich Meridian as the prime meridian for “time reckoning throughout the world” (it was already the Big Guy for longitude when it came to navigation). Of the 25 nations in attendance, the vote passed 22–1. Also decided: that a day is 24 hours and begins at midnight. In addition, Sir Sandford Fleming, representing Canada, proposed global standard time zones at the conference; a powerful advocate of a unified time system, Fleming also pushed for the creation of the International Date Line. The IMC generally agreed with Fleming, but declined to include his proposal as “outside the purview” of their mission.
Nevertheless, many of the attending nations took Fleming’s proposal back home for consideration and, by the 1920s, most countries were adhering to his plan for standard time and still do. With some exceptions.
When it’s noon in Greenwich…
… it’s 8:30 a.m. in Newfoundland. A half-hour off of Atlantic Standard Time, Newfoundland Standard Time exists because at the point when Canada adopted time zones, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador had, as a self-governed British Dominion, an entirely separate government. The capital of the province, St John’s, is near dead center of Atlantic Standard Time, so the folks in charge chose a unique time zone to maximize their daylight hours. Repeated recent attempts to bring the area into AST have been met with staunch opposition.
… it’s 7:30 a.m. in Venezuela. Venezuela is also a half-hour off AST, but only since 2007. President Hugo Chavez permanently (i.e., not just for Daylight Saving) turned the clocks back half an hour in 2007 in order to provide the country with “a more fair distribution of the sunrise,” particularly for schoolchildren and also to reduce energy consumption nationwide. His detractors, however, contend that Chavez simply didn’t want to share a time zone with “his arch-rival, the United States.”
… it’s 8 p.m. in Perth (Western Australia), 9:30 p.m. in Adelaide (South Australia & Alice Springs (Northern Territory), and 10 p.m. in Sydney (New South Wales) & Brisbane (Queensland). Northern Territory and South Australia have been on a half-hour offset since 1899 because most of their population resides in the eastern half. These times are accurate unless it’s Daylight Saving Time, which only five of Australia’s eight states & territories observe. The other three do not, splitting the country into five separate time zones for half the year. During DST, which started this past weekend for the country, it’s 8 p.m. in Perth, 9:30 p.m. in Alice Springs, 10:30 p.m. in Adelaide, 10 p.m. in Brisbane, and 11 p.m. in Sydney. Please note that it’s earlier in Brisbane than in Adelaide despite Brisbane being farther east — this is like if it was suddenly a half-hour later in Chicago than in Boston or New York.
And that’s not all. A small finger of the southeasternmost edge of Western Australia, comprising five small towns, observes a 45-minute offset from the rest of the state. Though it’s not a big deal — the area has about 200 residents — there are helpful road signs to alert motorists of the oddity.
… it’s 8 p.m. in Beijing. Eight p.m. in Beijing is not, itself, out of the ordinary — it’s completely in line with the standard time zone. The thing is, it’s also 8 p.m in Lhasa. Eight p.m. in Harbin. Eight p.m. in Shanghai. Eight p.m. in Urumqi. Eight p.m. in Gua… you get my drift. China spans five standard time zones, but following the 1949 Civil War, the ruling Communist Party established Beijing Time as uniform for the entire country. The westernmost Chinese skirt the law, however, by keeping business hours in accordance with daylight: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (It’s also 8 p.m. in Taiwan — though not because the Chinese government says so. Taiwan happens to fall within GMT+8.)
… it’s 5:30 p.m. in India & Sri Lanka. India, like China, operates under a single time zone. Unlike China, India is also offset from the standard time zones by an additional half-hour. This is actually beneficial, on two levels. Previous to the 1947 declaration, time in India was all over the place. Noon in Greenwich meant 4:51pm in Mumbai and 5:30 plus 20 seconds in Kolkata — at least now it’s uniform. The offset also maximizes daylight for most of the country. Check out writer Adam Cadre’s map of time zone deviance (we’re unable to link directly to it; but go here and scroll to the bottom). The sun’s highest point is more or less noon for most of the country!
… it’s 5:45 p.m. in Nepal. Nepal observes a 45-minute offset, one that puts its time 15 minutes later than India’s and 15 minutes earlier than Bangladesh’s. Meanwhile, it’s a half-hour later in Myanmar/Burma than it is Bangladesh and a full hour later than India. Actually, here, just enjoy this time-zone map of Mainland & Southeast Asia. What does it mean that North Korea is one of the more standard ones?
… it’s 2 p.m. in Kaliningrad, but 3 p.m. in Kaliningrad’s train station. Kaliningrad, originally Königsberg, is that eensy bit of Russia between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. It’s separated from the rest of the country. Under Soviet power, the Baltic States were adjusted to Moscow time, GMT +3, matching the rest of European Russia, though Baltic rebels would keep their timepieces on GMT+2 as a show of dissent. Indeed, upon achieving independence, the Baltic States and Kaliningrad immediately switched their clocks back to the more reasonable (with regards to actual daytime sunlight) local hour. However, one building stayed on Moscow time: the train station. As my friend Dave related to me: “All train tickets are printed an hour ahead of local time. If you show up at the printed time, you will miss your train, even if your train is to Vilnius or Riga, which are in the same time zone as Kaliningrad. I only learned this from the woman behind the ticket counter, who spoke only Russian, so it’s a good thing to keep in mind if you’re ever traveling in that part of Europe.”
This weekend, most of us are setting our clocks back an hour. Back in high school, before they pushed it back a few weeks, the end of Daylight Saving always fell the night before the big October NYS Field Band competition in Syracuse, and there was always the fear that someone (maybe you!!!) would forget to change the clock and show up an hour too late. But thanks to Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi and Michigan Representative Fred Upton, the DST changeover was, starting in 2007, switched to the first weekend in November. The primary drive behind the change? To allow children an extra hour of daylight for Halloween trick-or-treating. Awww.
Victoria Johnson is a cartographer and this is her Tumblr.