- One Time Fits All: The Campaigns for Global Uniformity
To start with a personal aside: In the mid-1970s, when National Bureau of Standards employee Ian Bartky was preparing a report for the U.S. Congress about whether year-round daylight saving time would save energy, it happens that I was often poolside at the only hotel in the kingdom of Tonga; it was called the International Dateline Hotel. Retiring from the NBS in 1992 after thirty-one years of service, Bartky turned to publishing about nineteenth-century timekeeping. His first book, Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America (2000), explained how astronomical observatories developed commercial time services. His second he finished shortly before his death in 2007. It is titled One Time Fits All: The Campaign for Global Uniformity, and it clarifies the shared historical roots of daylight saving, the international date line, and world time zones. It makes a solid contribution to the history of timekeeping in North America and western Europe through detailed accounting of conventions, meetings, hearings, and agreements resulting in Greenwich as the prime meridian, an international dateline, twenty-four world time zones, and daylight saving.
One Time Fits All stands in contrast to the work of social and cultural historians, like myself, about the lived experience of new (and old) temporal regimes. The International Dateline Hotel, in my view, is an important artifact in the lived experience of modern time. We need to know about both origins and experiences, and it is thanks to Bartky that we now know [End Page 252] about the origins of contemporary timekeeping conventions that extend throughout much of the world.
The book opens with an elegant overview of how the loss of a day while sailing from west to east troubled navigators, sailors, and, chroniclers; not knowing the correct day or date threw off religious rhythms and observances, particularly Sunday observance, while also interfering with accurate account keeping. The informal establishment of the international date line, a “conventional line” where oceangoing travelers change the day so as to create a continuous and uniform sense of time and history, solved this discomfiting calendrical confusion.
Chapters 2 through 9 follow scientists imbued with various measures of nationalism, pragmatism, and utopianism as they sought to hammer out an agreement about where to initiate the numbering of the earth’s longitudinal division. The highlight of the story comes in 1912 when, soon before sinking, the crew of the Titanic received a warning from a French steamship about a colossal iceberg: the wireless telegram used the Greenwich meridian to indicate the time, but the Paris Observatory meridian for its longitude. After the disaster, the previously recalcitrant French government decreed that all French nautical documents would use the English prime meridian. And thus it was not conventions of scientists engaged in reasonable debate and exchange that brought the world around to using a single prime meridian, but a senseless disaster that Bartky tells us had nothing to do with the warning’s use of two different meridians.
What of the world’s time zones? In 1925, England, France, and the United States officially agreed to divide the world into twenty-four time zones that corresponded to longitude, which Bartky assures readers “undoubtedly provided the impetus for other countries to adopt zone time as their legal time on land” (p. 157). But not all countries did adopt zone time, a point Bartky passes over. The Anglophone tendency to divide territory into arbitrary spatial and temporal units is clear: the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia all have multiple time zones. Russia’s whopping eleven time zones are also of note, as is Brazil’s recent decision to cut back to three time zones from four. In contrast, China and India each have a single national time. The global history of time zones is waiting for investigation, as are contemporary computer networks, the internet, and radio and wireless technology, all of which subscribe to the fiction (or convention) of worldwide uniform time. The tale...