• Rose Smith

About Time: Time Zones and Its History

Barge on a Port

Photo Source: Max Pixel

Time zones are one of those hidden forces in our daily lives that we often take for granted. It sort of makes sense; unless you travel a lot in the United States, you will often be spending the majority of your time in the same timezone. The history of time zones and their quirks across the world create an untold story of what time can mean to us and the ways that time is applied in the real world.

In America, time zones started to become a real thing in the late 1800s. Before, there was a lot of logistical confusion because while railways were trying to keep their own schedule, each town and train company kept its own time standard based off of their geographical location, amounting to 400 town timezones and 100 railroad timezones (Time and Date). To try to consolidate all the different zones, 4 standard time zones were introduced in 1883. In the following year, at the International Meridian Conference in Washington D.C., 22 countries came together to decide that the prime meridian, the line where all timezones would be based off of, would be in Greenwich, England, as it still is today. This came from the fact that at that time the most amount of shipping and economic export was coming out of the United Kingdom, so it would be a good idea to plan based off of the larger shipping hub. At the time, Greenwich was also producing the best and most accurate time data of the rest of the world.

Time zones are supposed to go by hourly regions, and by the 1920s, most countries were following the hourly standard. However, there are some exceptions to the rule. For instance, in 1949, the communist leaders of China decided to consolidate the 5 time zones into one large time zone (Time). This is not the only case where time zones have been changed for symbolic reasons. For instance, for the past couple years, North Korea’s timezone, called Pyongyang time for its capital city, was thirty minutes behind South Korea and Japan. North Korea should technically be in the same time zone as South Korea and Japan (Washington Post). The official reason initially was that North Korea wanted to not be on the same time zone as the standard time that Imperialist Japan set. This does have some truth, because Korea did have a 30 minute time zone difference before Japan occupied it in 1910. When Japan took over Korea (when it was one Korea), Japan made the time zone 30 minutes ahead to match its own. After the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, South Korea set its clock back 30 minutes again in 1954. In 1961, South Korea decided to shift back to the Japanese time zone for easier logistical planning with United States soldiers in Japan. Even in recent times, there is some political debate in South Korea over setting the clock back to when it was thirty minutes behind for the same historical reason. North Korea decided to set the clock back in 2015, which was interpreted as a sign of failing inter-Korean relations. At the time, North Korean missile testing and skirmishes at the demilitarized zone were causing rifts between Pyongyang and Seoul. As of 2018, as talks between the two Koreas develop, Kim Jong Un has announced that he is planning to make the time zone aligned with South Korea once again by setting the clock forward.

Time zones and standards are an important part of what makes our world tick. It allows us to plan out international or cross-country excursions. It’s no coincidence that what spurred the standardization of time zones went with the invention and mass usage of railroad transport, With all those train schedules, conductors need a sense of organization. Time zones have also been used as symbols as well such as China deciding to unify its own country under one time zone instead of five. Time zones are a fascinating aspect of the world we seem to take for granted, but take a moment at some point to appreciate all the logistics and history that goes into something as mundane as what the clock says on a given afternoon.

Rose Smith is the blog editor of Twenty-two Twenty-eight. When she isn’t writing about the world around her, she is often found listening to music, watching movies, and going on walks with her dogs.

You can find her on Instagram here and on Twitter here.