Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Time, Please!

Glancing back over this rubbish (there was no need for you to agree so quickly!), I note that sometimes, for instance, a piece I write in the early morning carries a dateline of the day before when published. It’s all due, of course, to the different time zones we’re stuck with. I write in France and some unsung genius a few thousand miles to the west is responsible for publishing it. Not unreasonably, he puts his date on it and hence the difference.

An interesting thought is that, since the newspapers in the west coast of America arrive quite few hours after those of Europe, those lucky ones will be the last to hear of the end of the world. All I can say is that God moves in mysterious ways!

Early man had no such problem He got up when the sun did and went bed, following its invaluable example. It does explain why places that experienced semi-annual perpetual daylight and similar perpetual darkness at various times of the year, never became popular with real estate developers. Then man discovered fire, someone cried “Let there be light” and it was all downhill from then on.

Keeping track of time was not of paramount importance until intrepid explorers started sailing westward, when a suitable chronometer was needed to be able to calculate their longitude. Egyptian water clocks and hour glasses were hardly suitable. Also necessary was a recognised starting point, a meridian of longitude, and nationalistic fervour ran high, a good many nations insisting that the line running through one of their cities was the correct one.

Finally, in the 19th. century, a conference in Washington agreed that it should run through Greenwich, London, where the Royal Observatory was located. Remarkably, the Americans did not press for it to be located through Foggy Bottom, but in those days they were not yet regarding themselves as arbiters of the destiny of the world, so they missed the opportunity.

But now every place had its own time zone, so many hours ahead or behind Greenwich Mean Time, and I was disturbed to find that I live in the WET zone (Western European Time) and that this blog is probably brought to you from the PT zone (Pacific Time). This is, I suppose, a straightforward arrangement but I recall that, when I lived in the United States, parts of Ohio elected to operate on their own time for some strange reason, putting them an hour out of kilter with their neighbours and causing endless confusion to strangers who were unaware of the situation.

Generally, these time zones are a nuisance, but there is a redeeming feature. When you invite someone to have a drink and they refuse with that sanctimonious, “It’s a bit early, isn’t it?” phrase, you can cheerfully respond, “ Well, it’s not too early in Ulan Bator,” and pour yourself one. Those ignorant of time zones don’t deserve a drink.

P.S. For those of you who would like to delve into the longitude matter a little more deeply, there is a wonderful book by Dava Sobel, “Longitude,” the story of the clockmaker John Harrison and his chronometer. I wish I’d written it.


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