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The History of Time Zones

Standard Time and Longitudes

24 time zones and many more subdivisions

Standard time is the time of a town, region or country, established by law or general usage as civil time.  It is determined locally.

For example, the whole of China, one of the largest countries in the world, has decided to adopt a single time zone.

What has the railway got to do with time?

The concept of standard time was adopted in the late 19th century in an attempt to end the confusion that was caused by each community's use of its own solar time.  Some such standard became increasingly necessary with the development of rapid railway systems and the consequent confusion of schedules that used scores of different local times kept in separate communities. (Local time varies continuously with change in longitude.)

The need for a standard time was felt most particularly in the United States and Canada, where several extensive railway routes passed through places that differed by several hours in local time.

An engineer's plan led to a crucial conference

Sir Sandford Fleming, a Canadian railway planner and engineer, outlined a plan for worldwide standard time in the late 1870s.  Following this initiative, in 1884 delegates from 27 nations met in Washington, D.C., for the Meridian Conference and agreed on a system basically the same as that now in use.

The present system employs 24 standard meridians of longitude (lines running from the North Pole to the South, at right angles to the Equator) 15º apart, starting with the Prime Meridian through Greenwich, England . These meridians are theoretically the centres of 24 standard time zones; in practice, the zones have in many cases been subdivided or altered in shape for the convenience of inhabitants.

Time is the same throughout each zone and differs from the international basis of legal and scientific time, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), by an integral number of hours; minutes and seconds are the same.

In a few regions, however, the legal time kept is not that of one of the 24 standard time zones because half-hour or quarter-hour differences are in effect there.

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