The Scrabble for Time: the geopolitics of time zones

Who controls time?

Given a 24-hour clock, the world can in principle be divided into 24 equal zones, each covering 15 degrees of longitude but geographical and political factors introduced complexity. The dateline and standard time zones, dates from 1884′s International Meridian Conference. Bringing together powers predominantly from the West it agreed on a 24-hour clock for the world and carved the world up into zones, with days starting at midnight at longitude 0º – a prize awarded to (where else?) Greenwich, in London.

The Meridian Conference didn’t however specify the exact course of the dateline. It now zigs and zags as it crosses land or passes through island groups. It kinks east to encompass Siberia within the same date as the rest of Russia, and west to bring Hawaii into line with mainland US. Nor did it enforce the system and over the years, many countries have ignored this international standard and set their own time as a way to assert national identity, to make political connections, gain economic leverage or to keep one time zone within their borders.

We investigate the geo-politics of time in a changing global world. Who “owes” time? How are time zones used to assert, maintain or challenge power? How are they manipulated? How did Africa’s position in Time Zones UTC-1 to UTC+4, which it shares with Europe contribute to colonialism? What does in mean considering the continents current economic realities? How do timezone impact on everyday life? What, for example is the experience of for example Chinese people in the western provinces, where clock time and the sun are so out of synch?

Some facts:

For more than a century the UK exploited London’s position as a time bridge to gain economic advantage; the City’s working day overlaps with other financial centres in the Americas and Asia.

France initially rejected Greenwich propoed at the International Meridian in favour of Paris and held out for another twenty-five years. Paris time placed Fance nine minutes ahead of GMT. The country is now GMT+1.

The Russian Empire once observed solar time, the time of the ancients in which days are dictated by the sun, and traditional Russian society, viewed time as eternal, without beginning or end, until Moscow Mean Time was finally introduced in the late 19th century. The country has had a fickle alliance with its time zones since, moving them about, creating and deleting as geography and politics dictated. In 2009 the Russia whittled down its 11 time zones in the cause of economic efficiency. By contrast for the old Kremlin, the 11 zones were a source of pride because they showed the im­mense stretch of Soviet might. Soviet Union era radio broadcast used to give the time in all the regions, ending with: “Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, midnight.”

In China, all government services across the country are still supposed to operate on Beijing time, even if the sun does not rise in the western provinces until after 10am during winter months.

Last year Samoa lost a day by changing time zones. While the east side of the date line was originally preferred for its closeness to the Americas, Samoa now conducts most of its trade with Australia and New Zealand, which at present are almost a full day ahead—an inconvenience indeed. For Samoa hopping the date-line was an attempt to adjust to this new economic reality. As a result, Samoa is now the first country in the world to celebrate the new year when once it was the last.


On the “Scrabble for time” -1884′s International Meridian Conference: Mario Creet. Sandford Fleming and Universal Time. Scientia Canadensis: Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine / Scientia Canadensis : revue canadienne d’histoire des sciences, des techniques et de la médecine , vol. 14, n° 1-2, (38-39) 1990, p. 66-89.

On time and geo-politics:

Clive Cookson. Time: Hour power (additional reporting by Charles Clover in Moscow and Geoff Dyer in Beijing). Finanvcial Times, 2009

Stefany Anne Golberg. Zoning Out: Time zones are fluid. What are the implications for time itself? The Smartset.

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