Sunday, 27 March 2011

A brief history of time

The clocks went forward for British Summer Time last night.

The idea of Daylight Saving was first proposed by William Willett. On his early morning rides in summer he noticed how many hours of daylight were being wasted when the sun rose at four or five in the morning.

William Willett published a pamphlet advocating the idea in 1907, but although Daylight Saving attracted the support of MPs and bills were placed before Parliament, it was not taken up by the government until 1916. Then it was introduced as a means of saving resources during the War.

Less than a hundred years before 1916, different parts of England still had their own local time. People measured time by the sun, and sunrise and sunset in the West of England were twenty minutes or so later than in London.

It was only when the railways arrived that it became essential for the whole country to have a uniform measurement of time. In 1840 the Great Western Railway decided that all its timetables and stations should operate according to London time. Other railway companies gradually followed.

From 1852, the installation of telegraph lines alongside railway tracks enabled an electric time signal to be sent throughout the country from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, so that clocks could be properly synchronised.

Mariners also needed to know the time accurately for navigation purposes. Time ball towers, the ball dropping at a fixed time each day, were established at Greenwich, visible to shipping in the Thames, and elsewhere around the coast.

At a conference in Washington DC in 1884, Greenwich was adopted as the  prime meridian of the world. Greenwich Mean Time was established as the standard by which time all over the world would be calculated.

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