Throughout history, inventors have sought ways to solve problems and make people’s lives better. In the video series Ingenious, hosts Trace Dominguez and Susannah Carroll discuss how innovations build on previous inventions to create things that we all live with and use every day. Often, these innovations improve upon what came before. Other times, they remedy issues that new inventions create. One such invention was time zones.
Clocks modernized how we keep time
As Trace and Susannah note in the Clocks episode of Ingenious, timekeeping has been around for millennia, and many timekeeping inventions used the sun’s position in the sky to determine the time of day. While later inventions, like clocks, didn’t rely on the sun the way that a sundial or obelisk would, people still used day and night as a reference to set their time. This continued well into the 19th century. “High noon” – the point where the sun is highest in the sky – was 12pm, and clocks were set accordingly. This meant that the clocks different cities and towns were set to different times according to location. For much of history, people weren’t often traveling far from home, and the slight differences between nearby towns didn’t matter much.
Trains got us to our destinations faster...but complicated time
That all changed with the invention of the railroad. As the hosts note in the Locomotion episode of Ingenious, railroads changed many aspects of life, allowing people and goods to travel greater distances in much shorter time spans. In many ways, the invention brought people closer together, but, regarding time, it highlighted the differences between them. High noon on the west coast was hours later than it was on the east, making it hard to know when trains would depart or arrive.
The solution: time zones
Sir Sanford Fleming, who worked as an engineer for Canadian railways, knew this problem firsthand when he missed a train in 1876. This experience gave him the idea for a standard time, with hourly variations according to different zones around the world. This way, time would still be set according to daylight, but would also be standardized to solve the problem of different times in different places. In 1883, American and Canadian railroads began using four different time zones across the continent, and in 1884, Fleming helped to convene the International Prime Meridian Conference, where standard time and time zones were made official.
We're still innovating
While it may seem like time is something fixed and unchanging, the creation of time zones (as well as regional time shifts like Daylight Saving Time) proves that it’s not. Airlines and the international finance industry use Coordinated Universal Time, a 24-hour standard time that is used to set time zones around the world, to ensure that things happen on time, no matter the location. As our world becomes more connected, especially online, some advocate that we do away with time zones altogether, with everyone using Universal Coordinated Time. As technology and innovation move us forward, people look for ways for our timekeeping to keep up.