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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Is the Clock Ticking for Greenwich Mean Time?

Is the Clock Ticking for Greenwich Mean Time?

 Should time be called on British ownership of time, along with other old British measurements? Most Brits say ‘hands off our clocks!’
Greenwich Meridian Time Line

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), also known as Greenwich Meridian Time, is symbolically marked by a line by the old Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London. Visitors walk along and around it, straddling it for fun.

But it’s a serious, acknowledged base for measurement. When clocks change in spring and autumn, GMT remains constant, so time is either + or – GMT. It’s Longitude Zero degrees, and is deemed the mean (average) time the earth takes to revolve from noon to noon. It sets official time, and although there’s now atomic time (UTC), it‘s understood as a global reference point.

It is used on the International Space Station, but there are 25 integer World Time Zones measured East and West of Greenwich. Civilian designations have three letter abbreviations, like EST or DST, while military and aviation designations use letters and are called by phonetic equivalents, so Greenwich is also Z, Zulu.

So, Why Change It?

There is perennial debate about whether Britain should stop clock changing by an hour every autumn and spring. Some argue for double summer time; some want Scotland to be different because of geographical position and to maximise daylight in working hours. That debate is not to be confused with the removal of GMT as time’s standard.

The International Bureau of Weights and Measures want to redefine time, dropping entirely the rotation of the earth and moving fully to atomic time. Based in Sevres, France, they ensure ‘world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units’ by the authority of the Convention of the Metre, a diplomatic treaty of fifty five nations.

Clive Aslet, Editor at Large for Country Life pleaded passionately in the Daily Telegraph to resist the proposal, arguing that ‘Anglo-Saxons are traditionalists’, accepting the world as it is, ‘spinning on its axis’. He said that GMT ‘has a ring to it’ and that ‘time is not only the medium of history, it has a history of its own’.

He recited how the Royal Society and the Observatory were founded in the reign of Charles II. Mathematics, astronomy and ocean navigation took giant leaps forward, but not till the Nineteenth Century did the United Kingdom adopt common time, to operate timetables efficiently in the railway age using telegraph lines to transmit a pulse to standardise the hours.

The same principle was adopted in 1884 for an international standard, and with much of the globe part of the British Empire, Greenwich was an inevitable choice for the starting point. The French opposed the Washington treaty then, but to no avail. Aslet’s point was that they were having another go in 2011.

Time Is Contentious

Thinking on time is subject to debate/disagreement like anything else in a changing world. Naturally countries want to be at the centre of world thinking. When Australia first published a southern hemispheric-biased map of the world, it made northerners think.

Some American scientists have claimed that the Magnetic North Pole is a line of longitude passing through North and South America. Islamic scholars have argued Mecca is the true centre of the Earth as a zero magnetism zone in alignment with the Magnetic North.

The Daily Telegraph reported in August 2010, that Greenwich’s supremacy was being challenged by a massive clock in Mecca, by which the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims set their timepieces. It said the clock bears a ‘striking resemblance to Big Ben and the Empire State Building’.

It has four huge faces lit by 2 million LED lights with script reading ‘In the name of Allah’. It runs on Arabia Standard Time (GMT +3). Flashing green and white lights remind the faithful to pray; it can be seen for 18 miles.

Time Stands For No Man

Britain slid towards metric weights and measurements over the latter part of the 20th century. Schools no longer teach Imperial, although it survives in official pints and miles and common parlance, not to mention a treasure trove of literature and history.

The old system evolved over a thousand years, creating terms like: acres, bushels, chains, chalders, chaldrons, crowns, customary measures, drachms, drams, farthings, fathoms, feet, florins, foolscap, furlongs, gallons, gills, grains, groats, guineas, hundredweights, lasts, leagues, miles, minims, nails, ounces, pecks, pennyweights, pints, poles, perchs, pounds, quarts, quarters, rods, roods, sacks, scruples, stones, tods, tons, troy ounces, wire gauges, weys and yards.

This catalogue is described by English Weights and Measures as ‘a defining part of British culture, uniting English-speaking nations’. Most British people happily go along with dual understanding of metric and Imperial in every-day living. To trade with the USA and some other parts of the world, it’s necessary to work in Imperial.

Yet still, some agitate for change and uniformity. This makes it a political issue, that Parliament must address in due course, along with changing BST, school days and terms.

Time to Prioritise?

Another one rising up the agenda of controversies, is the clamour in some quarters (or 25%s) to change the annotation of years, from BC/AD to BCE/CE. This is an attempt to stop the calendar being based on time before or after the Birth of Christ. It’s been condemned by the Vatican. The semi-official paper L’Osservatore Romano described it as ‘enormous nonsense’ and the BBC’s attitude in promoting the concept as ‘senseless hypocrisy’.

Religious Tolerance explains it as CE standing for Common Era being the same as AD (anno domini, the year of the Lord), that is the approximate birth of Jesus of Nazareth, with common based on the Gregorian Calendar. BCE means before the Common Era; BC means before Christ, so, again, BC and BCE have identical values.

The C in both BCE and BC can be interpreted as Christ or Christian, so it’s hard to follow the logic of moving from the designation that most people understand and use. It’s all in the terminology and interpretation, but that is life.

Time flies, and different things matter in different ways to different people.

First published on Suite 101, 6 October 2011

Image: Greenwich Meridian Line by Green Lane

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