What’s the Time?

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Highlighting the facts behind the fiction with Jude Knight who brings us the origins of time keeping.

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Sundials only worked when the sun shone.

Most of us know that, once upon a time, everywhere in the world took their time from the sun. Water clocks, candles, and sundials—all attempts to be more precise, were calibrated by the sun.

That state lasted far longer than most people realize. Mechanical clocks and watches, too, once they were invented, were set for local time, and midday in Dover was one hour ahead of midday in Galway.

Solar time was good enough. After all, it took a couple of weeks to travel the distance the sun could cover in a couple of hours. The difference between places that were a day’s ride east or west was only a few minutes.

Then came the railways.

All of a sudden, exact times mattered. Not only were people traveling at four times the speed — and for longer each day; those controlling the railways needed to know when trains were going to be where, and know it precisely. It was a matter of life or death.

The great Western Railway in England was the first to set all of their train drivers’ and station managers’ watches by the time at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, that is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).  

In 1847, the railway companies who formed The Railway Clearing House followed suit. Almost all the remaining railway companies had adopted the standard by the following year.

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The clock on the Bristol Corn Exchange

From then on, Great Britain had railway time and legal time, which was the local time wherever you happened to be. Many towns displayed both times. For example, the clock on The Exchange, Bristol has two minute hands, one for GMT or London time and one for Bristol.

GMT did not become legal time throughout most of Britain until 1880, in the Isle of Man in 1883, Jersey in 1898, Guernsey in 1913, and Ireland in 1916.

Meanwhile, as railways spread around the world, so did railway time. As railway time became the legal time for a country, many nations used GMT as their touch point for local time, so GMT +1 or GMT +13, meaning 13 hours ahead of the time in Greenwich. This followed a convention already established for ship navigation.

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The Greenwich meridian, or 0 degree line, is marked in metal in the courtyard of the Royal Observatory.

Today, GMT is a time zone, not a time standard. Coordinated Universal Time is the standard. That is, mean solar time at 0 degrees longitude. (The actual time that the sun crosses 0 degrees, the Greenwich Meridian, varies over a year, so the calculation averages it, giving us the word ‘Mean’ in GMT.)

So, when it comes right down to it, we still set our time by the sun.

Meet Jude Knight

Jude Knight loves to write about travel in her Regency romances, which means time is something she thinks about.

Her stories are meant to thrill, delight and intrigue. She currently has her first novel, The Golden Redepennings, and all of her novellas for sale at only 99c US. Do try them.



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Caroline Warfield, Author

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