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The imperialism of time zones


A modern life lived by natural time, dictated by the sun or moon, would be confusing. A conference call dialed at 9 a.m. in Boston would ring at the Springfield office at 8:54 a.m local time. A last-minute birthday text sent instantly from Philadelphia at 11:59 p.m. would need to read “belated” in New York City, as it would arrive at 12:03 a.m. local time.

Fortunately, those cities had all been operating on the same clock time for decades before long-distance communication became so ubiquitous and instantaneous. A 1918 federal law created the time zone, generally referred to as Eastern Standard, that operated on “the mean astrological time” along the 90th degree of longitude west of the meridian running through Greenwich, England, a definition that held for almost 90 years before being simplified.

Creating uniformity was a long, messy process, and one frequently seen as imperialistic, as University of Pennsylvania professor Vanessa Ogle details in her new book, “The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950.” Railroads began standardizing times along their tracks in the 1880s, and governments soon followed, but not always in an orderly fashion. And citizens, who had spent their lives following the shadows of the sun, didn’t always listen anyway.


The issue is still with us. This summer, North Korea announced a unique time zone for the country, while in the United States, the details of daylight saving time seem to change every few decades. The most recent tweak came in 2007, when Congress made it a month longer. That change didn’t affect Arizona, which abandoned daylight saving time after trying it for just one year in 1967, except, of course, in the corner of the state occupied by the Navajo Nation, which does adhere to daylight saving time.

Ogle spoke with Ideas from her office in Philadelphia. Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: We set the clocks back an hour this weekend. Would people before the late 19th century have thought this possible?

OGLE: The problem with imagining something like daylight saving was that you had to think of time no longer as indicated by natural time givers such as the sun or the moon, but rather by the mechanical time of the clock, which is basically a grid grafted onto natural rhythms. People had really tremendous difficulties in thinking that their rhythms of sleep and wake and eating would adapt to something like summer time. That was almost impossible for people to [adapt to] for several decades — much longer than historians have commonly assumed.


IDEAS: Did the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy help people make that transition?

OGLE: Intuitively, it makes sense to think that working in a factory and following the dictate of the clock would make people internalize an understanding of time as abstract and detached from natural rhythms. But what I found when I read discussions from the late 19th and even the early 20th century, was that there wasn’t necessarily this connection. People around the world could work in factories and subject their bodies and minds to factory discipline, but they still lived in multiple nonstandardized times. They still abided by natural time givers such as the sun and the seasons, and they couldn’t imagine anything other than these kind of times ruling their lives.

IDEAS: People were switching between times in their daily lives?

OGLE: Once they understood that there was still the time of the seasons and nature and God in addition to abstract time, people were quite comfortable with thinking of themselves living under these parallel time regimes. In cosmopolitan cities like Beirut, it was particularly pronounced simply because of the variety of religions cohabiting there. You have Western Christians, Catholics and Protestants, but you also have Eastern Christians using a different calendar for instance. And then you have Islam. At this period, for practicing Muslims, life was still very much structured by the fivetimes daily prayer. People often made appointments by referring to prayer times and saying, “We will meet one hour after the noon prayer,” rather than saying, “We’ll meet at 1 o’clock.” It was this multi-religious, multi-ethnic fabric of the city that really enhanced this.


IDEAS: Were governments effective at enforcing uniform time?

OGLE: The extent to which government could actually enforce these things was quite limited. Historians like to think of that period as one in which bureaucracy grew and states generally got stronger and had a greater presence in people’s lives. That is certainly true, but time is a very particular thing to be legislated. Time is not like other kinds of laws because it has this very personal, social, cultural, and symbolic meaning.

IDEAS: How did governments select their countries’ times?

OGLE: Regional and national concerns followed practical dictates of what works best in this particular territory, what is best for railways in this particular country, and so on. But then there were instances when time took on very identity-related, often charged meanings. The best known example is that the French objected to applying Greenwich time simply because it was “British time.” France was one of the last countries in Western Europe to adopt a time zone in accordance with the Greenwich system, only in 1911.


IDEAS: What finally standardized international time zones?

OGLE: There was a very widespread impression, at least among the educated public in the United State and Western Europe, that the world was becoming more globalized and more interconnected. These people looked around and they saw empire, they saw more integrated world markets emerge, they saw steam ships and telegraphs and railways. So in this shrinking world, it was necessary to push through these progressive or rational projects, such as uniform time. Everybody has a time that can be easily compared and calculated anywhere in the world. That was the logic.

IDEAS: What did this mean for non-Westerners?

OGLE: This was not just a benevolent description of a world interconnecting, but rather there was this forced modernization: We do not tolerate those who object to essentially Euro-American progress being spread across the world. When Europeans looked around, they saw a world that was becoming smaller. To people in places like Beirut or in Beijing or somewhere in Japan, it meant something very different. It meant that they stood at the risk of falling victim to European imperial aspirations. To them, interconnectedness and globalization meant that they had to do something for self-improvement and self-strengthening in order to be able to withstand that challenge that was emanating from Europe. Arabs in places such as Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus were obsessed with clocks and watches. Tied to this interest, there’s this discourse about Arab civilization being in need of better time management to help Arabs improve themselves so they would be able to be as successful as Europeans and not become victims of imperialism themselves.


Kelly O’Brien can be reached at