The pace and progress of travel may be highly dependent on time, yet just over a century ago, it was the former that had influenced the birth of time zones. Before that, an official timekeeper would set the local time at noon, when the sun was at its highest. People then would set their pocket watches according to the official time of the town.
But the expanding use of railways changed that. As trains worldwide would travel farther and farther distances, a need arose to build accurate timetables to let people know exactly what time trains departed and arrived.
Scottish-born engineer Sir Sandford Fleming is credited by some with coming up with the idea of time zones after he missed a train in Ireland. In 1879, at the International Meridian Conference, he proposed to divide the earth into 24 time zones, each of which would be an hour apart with a universal time for each individual zone. Using telescopes, the master time source was calibrated to the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in the United Kingdom. By 1880, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was legally adopted throughout Great Britain. Eventually, it was used worldwide as a reference time, with the prime meridian of zero degrees longitude passing through Greenwich, England. Most time zones were based upon this reference, indicating the number of hours and half-hours "ahead of GMT" or "behind GMT."
Fleming then commissioned a manufacturer in London to construct a unique pocket watch that would accurately reflect his proposal. The "Cosmic Time" pocket watch featured times for each of the 24 zones depicted on a single dial, making it the world's first world time watch.
Yet it wasn't until Louis Cottier that the world timer and its iconic mechanism were made covetable. At around 1931, Cottier designed a movement featuring local time with hour and minute hands linked to a rotating 24-hour ring—and bordered by a fixed outer dial ring with the names of different cities inscribed on it. With the hour and minute hands set at local time, the city of choice was placed at the 12 o'clock position. The watch would then display the correct time in both hours and minutes, night and day, for every time zone in the world simultaneously. Among Cottier's first clients were Swiss brands such as Audemars Piguet, IWC, Patek Philippe, and Vacheron Constantin. Thus, the city-centric world timer was born, and the names of the cities he featured on his bezels were in French, as many remain today.
However, the world is currently divided into 39 distinct time zones that rarely follow straight geographic lines. For political reasons, certain countries did not apply standard time zones as originally conceived by Fleming, but added half-hour and quarter-hour deviations from the original full-hour time zones. China, for example, extends across four time zones but only uses one. Russia takes only nine of its 11 time zones into account. India, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Venezuela have offset their time zones by half an hour; Nepal and the Chatham Islands, off the coast of New Zealand, offset theirs by three-quarters.
While Fleming's idea of time zones may not have been applied uniformly across the world, the spirit of his genius lives on in every world timer.
This article originally appeared in Vault Issue #6, 2012