Timing is Everything

The Toronto Star, November 4, 2007

Canadian engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, Father of Standard Time

The conference that invented modern timekeeping began as a magnificent international idea. Astronomers, scientists, engineers and enlightened politicians from every country in the “civilized world” gathered in Washington, D.C., in October 1884 in an attempt to overcome petty political differences and create a rational system of international timekeeping. Soon after the International Meridian Conference began, though, high-minded internationalism gave way to small-minded squabbling.

The man behind the gathering was a Canadian. Sandford Fleming had conceived of dividing the world into 24 time zones, each an hour apart. (For his efforts, Fleming was knighted and is celebrated as one of the “Greatest Canadians” – No. 42, one position ahead of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, according to the CBC (though two back of Avril Lavigne). Though the representatives agreed on the need to locate a Prime Meridian, finding a suitable position was more controversial. There were reference meridians in use from Paris to Berlin to Cadiz, each with its own valid historical and astrological claims to legitimacy.

The obvious choice was the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The system was already used by the Canadian and American train systems, and because Britain had the largest merchant navy the majority of world’s mariners also used it. For a country like France, however, adopting an English time was seen as an enormous symbolic and political concession.

In the end, the French lost, and a leafy suburb of London became the place where each day officially begins. And although the country eventually adopted the Greenwich hour, France was true to its word. In 1898, official French time was listed as “Paris mean time, retarded by nine minutes, twenty-one seconds.”

* * *

This morning, an extended period of daylight saving time comes to an end, as Ontarians wake up and go through the biannual ritual of resetting their radio alarms and trying to figure out how to reprogram their microwave clocks.

Most of us probably barely noticed the extra four weeks of additional daylight hours.

But for early risers who resented the late sunrise, and curmudgeons who, like Robertson Davies, despise daylight saving time on principle – detecting “the bony, blue-fingered hand of puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier” – the extension is another example of politics and commerce trumping the natural clock.

Extending daylight saving “has nothing to do with science or energy,” says Michael Downing, a Professor at Tufts University and author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.

Daylight saving time has always been driven by retail interests, he says. “The single and most important lobby on behalf of daylight saving since 1916 has been the American Chamber of Commerce. More evening sunlight means people leave their homes, and when North Americans leave their homes they buy things.”

Just yesterday, The Star carried a story on the U.S. candy industry allegedly lobbying to extend daylight saving past Halloween (the industry disputes the accusation).

In 2005, the U.S. decided to extend daylight saving by three weeks in the spring and one week in the fall. When the U.S. plan was announced, Ontario industries briefly panicked. Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) president David Bradley warned Premier Dalton McGuinty that there would be serious economic consequences if Ontario didn’t follow America’s lead. “The prevailing view of the trucking industry is that it would be better to be in sync with our largest trading partner and customer than to not be,” said Bradley.

In polls, Canadians were split on the issue. Yet shortly after the U.S. announcement, McGuinty, along with most of Canada’s premiers, decided to follow American lawmakers in lengthening the daylight saving time period by a month.

* * *

Like so many of the great inventions of the Victorian age, international standardized time was a brilliant innovation prompted by technological advances, advocated by commercial interests, and implemented by politicians.

Before the industrial revolution, towns and cities were content to live by their own clocks. Local time was based on the solar noon – the moment when the sun is at its peak.

Of course, the world can be broken into an infinite number of solar noons. Across the most populated latitude in North America, each 12 1/2 miles marks a new solar minute, each 1100 feet a new solar second.

In the mid-19th century, North America was divided into hundreds of different “official times,” all equally accurate. Adjacent towns enthusiastically supported their own “real” time.

The result was a paradox: The more truly you kept time, the more official times proliferated, and the more unwieldy and generally insane the whole system became.

This would change with the invention of the steam engine. The fact that New Haven had one time and New York another was relatively inconsequential when people were using a horse and carriage to get between them. But when railway companies ran trains on schedules, two or three minutes made a difference.

In Great Britain, English railway lines took the lead and decided to uniformly adopt Greenwich Mean Time. In 1852, clocks in British homes and offices followed suit.

In the U.S., where hours instead of minutes separate east from west, creating a standard time was more difficult. Large railroads adopted a single time for trains across their own systems, generally using the local time of the city where their main terminal was located. A station could have as many official times as railway companies serving it, plus local time; it was confusing and metaphysically troubling.

In 1883, after years of confusion, all American railways switched to Standard Railway Time, a rough approximation of our current system.

There were pockets of resistance. U.S. communities from Michigan to Georgia refused to make the switch. The mayor of Bangor, Me., vetoed the time change for his city.

Religious authorities complained that the new times were “unnatural.” What could be more arrogant, they argued, than replacing the sun with a man-made system?

Some resistors mistrusted the railroad companies and resented the fact that a group of corporations had decided, without consultation, to alter the lives of ordinary people in such a profound way.

“The sun is no longer to boss the people,” lamented an Indianapolis newspaper. “People… must eat, sleep and work… by railroad time… People will have to marry by railroad time…”

Opposition centred on a few basic reasons: support for local traditions and temporal histories, a belief in the importance of following the “natural” time of the sun, and suspicion of big business.

According to Eviatar Zerubavel, a professor at Rutgers University who has written on the standardization of time, commercial interests won the day. “When you read the proceedings of the conference, the decisions were mostly commercial decisions,” says Zerubavel. “The country that set the tone was Britain, because they had the greatest commerce in the 1880s.”

With standardized time, Zerubavel also sees early steps towards what is today called globalization. “Standard time is the precursor of a global system . . . of transportation and communication,” says Zerubavel. “Adopting standard time became a part of entering the modern world.”

It also meant entering a world created by the West. At the International Meridian Conference of “civilized” countries, there was only one representative from Asia and one from Africa. Japan and Turkey were the only non-Christian nations involved.

For proudly nationalistic countries, refusing to use the Western clock became a symbol of political resistance. As Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini once said: “The heads of our (Muslims) countries are so influenced by the West that they have set their clocks according to European time. It’s a nightmare.”

In August, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced a plan to turn back his country’s clocks by half an hour to provide a more “equitable distribution of the sunrise.”

The half-hour switch, Chavez’s science advisor said, was a reversal of a decision made in the mid-1960s under President Raul Leoni, a “government of the interests of the bourgeoisie in which aspects which affected human beings were tied to the profits of companies.”

“It’s a rebellious act,” says Zerubavel. “It’s basically saying, ‘The international system is a western, Americanized system, we’re not going to go by it.'”

It is no accident that most of the countries that Venezuela will be joining in the half-hour offset from Greenwich mean time – Iran, Burma, India and Afghanistan – are isolated from, and even antagonistic to, the West. (Newfoundland’s insistence on remaining a half-hour apart can be traced to a unique geographical location and, arguably, an ornery provincial character. As Premier Danny Williams once explained, Newfoundlanders “like to be different.”)

Suspicion of the wealthy West was apparent in the battle over daylight saving time in Mexico. When Mexico was adopting the practice in 1997, President Ernesto Zedillo expected it to save energy and keep his country in sync with American and European markets. Many Mexicans suspected the switch was part of a secret clause in the North American Free Trade agreement.

Why didn’t Canadians rise up against American-style daylight saving? It could be that, when it comes to our clocks, Canadians are used to taking our cues from America and big business.

Or the answer could be simpler. As David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, says, “The fact is that people seem to like daylight savings. It’s just a lifestyle and a health benefit.”

Changing the clock in order to enjoy the evening seems to be a long way away from the grand intentions of Sandford Fleming at the International Meridian Conference. But it’s a rationale the engineer might have understood. After all, Fleming’s motivation for creating standard time was every bit as quotidian: While on vacation in 1876, he missed a train because of a confusing schedule. The world’s clocks haven’t been the same since.