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Whose time is it anyway?

Boz magazine, 43: 8-9, November 1997

Brian J Ford

The diggers are moving in on Greenwich. London is building the greatest experience centre in world history. Mr Mandelson is very bullish about the whole thing. ‘The world will be watching Greenwich when the new millennium dawns,’ he says. ‘As midnight strikes, everyone will be watching the place where time began.’

Whoever told him that? Midnight at Greenwich will not be midnight for most of the world. The nations where time matches ours are few in number. The West African states, including Mauritania and Gambia, are in our time zone, and so is Portugal. Then there’s Iceland, of course. And we musn’t forget the Faeroes. The rest of the world is hitched to different conventions, and will have midnight when it’s certainly not going to be midnight here.

France ought to be in the same time zone as we are, since they share our longitude. In fact Francophone bureaucrats have imposed Central European Time across a vast swathe of the continent. This means that people in Poland (when the sun is already risen in the sky) have their clocks set to the same standard as people in Spain (still dark at the time). Rather than for us to join the continent, it would make far more sense for the French to copy us.

The campaigners against summer time say we should harmonise with the mainland, but they forget something: continental Europe has summer time just as much as we do. Joining the European time setting in the new millennium would do nothing to reduce the twice-yearly confusion of changing the clocks forward and back. Why, they even do that in the States.

So, should we be prepared for the Faeroese and Portuguese to share our moment of triumph as the new millennium hits Europe? And the Icelanders (nearly forgot for a moment there)? Not even they will share the recognition of the great moment, because Greenwich Mean Time doesn’t exist anywhere but in Britain. Once, GMT was the international standard. The nations of the world measured their own time zones from Greenwich, and when the USA established their time zones in 1883 they were defined as time differences from London. All that ended in 1928, when Greenwich Mean Time was abolished. From that time on, the standard was still based here in London but was renamed Universal Time.

Once again, the French managed to obtain international agreement that the zero meridian be redefined as passing through the Parisian suburbs (due south of Greenwich, thus sharing the zero meridian). They also renamed it Coordinated Universal Time, and that is the term used round the world to this day. Atomic clocks were introduced to give us all an accurate standard. The world’s first caesium clock was set in operation at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington in 1955. Atomic clocks, as everyone has been told, are amazingly accurate. The fundamental frequency of caesium-133 is 9,192,631,770 vibrations per second, which sounds duly impressive.

Buy a quartz watch in a shop, and you imagine it will keep perfect time until the battery goes flat. That is the theory, but the practice is very different. When I am lecturing, slides gleaming on the screen over my head in order to provide something to talk about, I have practical evidence of the inaccuracy of modern watches. Several minutes before the hour, it starts. Deep in the audience is a squeaky little ‘beep’. A few seconds later and another one sounds; then another. This goes on for five or ten minutes, as the watches of a great audience all celebrate their own version of the marking the hour. In the days when grandfathers wound their watches and calibrated them carefully, the hour was marked with astonishing accuracy. Go into a clock collection, bereft of anything with a battery, and they all start striking at the same time. It is only our ultra-modern high-tech watches, each allegedly tuned to a billionth of a second, which wander at will from reality. When we returned Hong Kong to the Chinese, the parties all celebrated midnight at a different time, depending on who had the watch. Several were waiting for the magic moment, only to see groups across the street already popping champagne because their local version of midnight had already arrived.

The year 2000 is an invention of the Christian world. Other calendars are very different. Our ‘millennium’ will be in year 5761 of the Jewish calendar, and 1421 for the Muslim world. In North Korea it will only be year 88 (their calendar started on the birth of their leader Kim Il Sung, who died aged 82 on 8 July 1994). The Christian calendar is used for international business purposes, of course, but let’s not forget the others. The year 2000 is a matter of academic interest for much of the global population. Some people say that the new millennium does not begin until 2001. The reason for that is that we always designate our standard date as Anno Domini, in ‘the year of our Lord’. When you are in your 20th year you are not yet 20. Thus, the year 2000 will be the two thousandth year, but not yet the completion of the full two thousand years.

But two thousand years since when? Whatever we may be celebrating, it certainly isn’t going to be the 1,999th birthday of Jesus. I scorn the pedants who say we should not celebrate until 2001. They miss the whole point. What we are celebrating is simply putting a 2 where there has been a 1 for a thousand years. That’s all. The switch from 1 to 2 is the perfect chance for a party. If the pedants still insist on celebrating in 2001, no matter - we have excuses for two mammoth parties, which promises twice as much fun. And what if the world isn’t watching? If you are going to celebrate as much as I am going to celebrate when Big Ben strikes our own national version of midnight, it is probably just as well. The fewer who are watching, the better.

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