originally published January 19, 2013

If you’re ever looking to torment your brain with impossible logistics and a seemingly unattainable global cooperation, I recommend you do a little reading on time zones. It has taken centuries to scrunch this mess into a workable system, and even now it’s a jumbled splatter.

The theory behind it is simple. Noon in Chattanooga should look the same as noon in Tel Aviv. To accomplish this, someone had to divvy up the globe into imaginary regions. The starting point was chosen to be Greenwich Mean Time, or the time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, because hell, if the British were going to be the first to take the initiative and figure this crap out, then they get dibs on the starting point of standardized time.

The first method was simple. It was also stupid. For every degree of longitude away from GMT a place was located, they tweaked time by four minutes. This would mean that New York and Boston – about two degrees apart – would differ in time by eight minutes. People didn’t travel a lot back then (nobody ever complained about horse-lag), but when trains suddenly showed up on the scene, figuring out when one train might collide with another on the same track became something worth watching.

Once again, GMT scores first. The entirety of Great Britain (with a few exceptions, probably crotchety old folks whose sundials still regularly blinked “12:00”) switched over to GMT by 1855. In 1880 standardized time became the law.

On this side of the Atlantic, with far more longitude to cover, keeping track of the logistics of a standardized time was a huge mess. The railroad was once again the driving force, but each railroad used its own standardized time. It apparently never occurred to anyone that maybe coordinating between the companies might save everyone a few headaches. At the Pittsburgh main station, there were six different clocks keeping track of the six different times it might actually be, depending on which company logo was stamped on your ticket.

This is what happens when corporations control our destiny. This is also why restaurants back then refused to take reservations. It was just too confusing.

William F. Allen, editor of the Traveler’s Official Railway Guide, came up with a solution. Four time zones across the continental United States (or, as they were called back then, the United States), with the divisions running through major railroad cities. This meant areas just east and west of cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Buffalo and Charleston would be an hour apart.

If you’re thinking, “Hey, those cities aren’t all in a straight line,” then behold: the official clusterfuck of a time zone map from Allen’s system:

It wasn’t until 1918 when the US officially stamped the current system into place. Canada’s time zone history is somewhat more vague, though we eventually followed America’s lead, adding on an extra time zone in the east to accommodate our more plump mass of land. But it was a Canadian – Sir Sandford Fleming – who first proposed the notion of worldwide time zones.

By 1900 a lot of countries were on board with standard universal time, offset from GMT. Some nations preferred to use their own national observatory and just mark off the time by that. It wasn’t until 1972 when all worldwide official time services regularly broadcast their radio time signals synchronized to GMT, Some countries, like the rogue-bitch state of Nepal, didn’t get on board until as late as 1986. Even then, just to show it was more bad-ass than its neighbors, Nepal settled on an offset of five hours, forty-five minutes from GMT. So yeah, you’ll be tweaking your minute hand if you’re jetting into Nepal. That’s what goes down in a rogue-bitch state.

Of course the notion that the sun will be at its highest point in the sky right at noon only counts if you’re at precisely the right longitude; with time zones that are hundreds of miles wide, your odds aren’t great. To make things even more confusing, leap seconds have to be plopped into the GMT clock regularly to account for each day being a handful of nanoseconds longer than twenty-four hours. But the earth’s rotation isn’t a constant either, so that has to be calculated. What it boils down to, is that there are people who are paid full-time salaries to literally watch the clock. I don’t know what a clock-watcher-adjuster person makes in a year, but my job suddenly feels a lot less dull and math-y.

Most nations are fairly comfortable with the time zone system as it is, even when it comes to managing daylight savings time (I still don’t know why Saskatchewan and Arizona are exempt from daylight savings time… rogue-bitch territories, perhaps?). Some insist on being a half-hour off the norm, simply because it makes geographic sense. Newfoundland & Labrador in Canada, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Australia all require a 30-minute tweak to the clock. The Chatham Islands just off New Zealand – about whom I’d gladly complain, but they have penguins so they’re cool – are Nepalese in their weirdness, sitting at 45 minutes off New Zealand time.

The country with the most time zones is France, with twelve, counting French Guinea and all those little islands that are still holdouts from colonial times. Since the commies took hold in 1949, China became the country with the disproportionately fewest time zones, with only one. Mao didn’t want to mess with his Rolex when he travelled cross-country, I guess.

There are 22 places around the world where three or more time zones meet, like the border where Norway, Finland and Russia connect. I imagine there are little signs posted, and tourists jumping from time zone to time zone, making DeLorean jokes, or whatever was the big time-travel 80’s movie in that part of the world.

There is one small strip of Western Australia, larger in area than Belgium but with only 200 inhabitants, which possesses its own time zone, 8:45 ahead of GMT. Also, of the five other time zones in Australia, only two of them use daylight savings time. Check out this map:

They do this because, if you don’t live there, Australia wants to mess you up. Seriously, why those middle blocks aren’t set at 9 hours ahead of GMT instead of 9.5, I have no idea. It has to be a vindictive act by the Aussie government. I think we should investigate.

But wait! Never mind… they have penguins!

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