Before clocks were first invented, it was common practice to mark the time of day with apparent solar time (also called "true" solar time) – for example, the time on a sundial – which was typically different for every location and dependent on longitude.
When well-regulated mechanical clocks became widespread in the early 19th century, each city began to use some local mean solar time. Apparent and mean solar time can differ by up to around 15 minutes (as described by the equation of time) because of the elliptical shape of the Earth's orbit around the Sun (eccentricity) and the tilt of the Earth's axis (obliquity). Mean solar time has days of equal length, and the difference between the two sums to zero after a year.
Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was established in 1675, when the Royal Observatory was built, as an aid to mariners to determine longitude at sea, providing a standard reference time while each city in England kept a different local time.
Plaque commemorating the Railway General Time Convention of 1883 in North America
Local solar time became increasingly inconvenient as rail transport and telecommunications improved, because clocks differed between places by amounts corresponding to the differences in their geographical longitudes, which varied by four minutes of time for every degree of longitude. For example, Bristol is about 2.5 degrees west of Greenwich (East London), so when it is solar noon in Bristol, it is about 10 minutes past solar noon in London. The use of time zones accumulates these differences into longer units, usually hours, so that nearby places can share a common standard for timekeeping.
The first adoption of a standard time was on December 1, 1847, in Great Britain by railway companies using GMT kept by portable chronometers. The first of these companies to adopt standard time was the Great Western Railway (GWR) in November 1840. This quickly became known as Railway Time. About August 23, 1852, time signals were first transmitted by telegraph from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Even though 98% of Great Britain's public clocks were using GMT by 1855, it was not made Britain's legal time until August 2, 1880. Some British clocks from this period have two minute hands—one for the local time, one for GMT.
Improvements in worldwide communication further increased the need for interacting parties to communicate mutually comprehensible time references to one another. The problem of differing local times could be solved across larger areas by synchronizing clocks worldwide, but in many places that adopted time would then differ markedly from the solar time to which people were accustomed.
On November 2, 1868, the then British colony of New Zealand officially adopted a standard time to be observed throughout the colony, and was perhaps the first country to do so. It was based on the longitude 172°30′ East of Greenwich, that is 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of GMT. This standard was known as New Zealand Mean Time.
Timekeeping on the American railroads in the mid-19th century was somewhat confused. Each railroad used its own standard time, usually based on the local time of its headquarters or most important terminus, and the railroad's train schedules were published using its own time. Some junctions served by several railroads had a clock for each railroad, each showing a different time.
1913 time zone map of the United States, showing boundaries very different from today
Charles F. Dowd proposed a system of one-hour standard time zones for American railroads about 1863, although he published nothing on the matter at that time and did not consult railroad officials until 1869. In 1870 he proposed four ideal time zones (having north–south borders), the first centered on Washington, D.C., but by 1872 the first was centered on the meridian 75° W of Greenwich, with geographic borders (for example, sections of the Appalachian Mountains). Dowd's system was never accepted by American railroads. Instead, U.S. and Canadian railroads implemented a version proposed by William F. Allen, the editor of the Traveler's Official Railway Guide. The borders of its time zones ran through railroad stations, often in major cities. For example, the border between its Eastern and Central time zones ran through Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Charleston. It was inaugurated on Sunday, November 18, 1883, also called "The Day of Two Noons", when each railroad station clock was reset as standard-time noon was reached within each time zone. The zones were named Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. Within a year 85% of all cities with populations over 10,000, about 200 cities, were using standard time. A notable exception was Detroit (which is about halfway between the meridians of eastern time and central time) which kept local time until 1900, then tried Central Standard Time, local mean time, and Eastern Standard Time before a May 1915 ordinance settled on EST and was ratified by popular vote in August 1916. The confusion of times came to an end when Standard zone time was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918.
Worldwide time zones
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The first known person to conceive of a worldwide system of time zones was the Italian mathematician Quirico Filopanti. He introduced the idea in his book Miranda! published in 1858. He proposed 24 hourly time zones, which he called "longitudinal days", the first centred on the meridian of Rome. He also proposed a universal time to be used in astronomy and telegraphy. But his book attracted no attention until long after his death.
Scottish-born Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming proposed a worldwide system of time zones in 1879. He advocated his system at several international conferences, and is credited with "the initial effort that led to the adoption of the present time meridians". In 1876, his first proposal was for a global 24-hour clock, conceptually located at the centre of the Earth and not linked to any surface meridian. In 1879 he specified that his universal day would begin at the anti-meridian of Greenwich (180th meridian), while conceding that hourly time zones might have some limited local use. He also proposed his system at the International Meridian Conference in October 1884, but it did not adopt his time zones because they were not within its purview. The conference did adopt a universal day of 24 hours beginning at Greenwich midnight, but specified that it "shall not interfere with the use of local or standard time where desirable".
By about 1900, almost all time on Earth was in the form of standard time zones, only some of which used an hourly offset from GMT. Many applied the time at a local astronomical observatory to an entire country, without any reference to GMT. It took many decades before all time on Earth was in the form of time zones referred to some "standard offset" from GMT/UTC. By 1929, most major countries had adopted hourly time zones. Nepal was the last country to adopt a standard offset, shifting slightly to UTC+5:45 in 1986.
Today, all nations use standard time zones for secular purposes, but they do not all apply the concept as originally conceived. Newfoundland, India, Iran, Afghanistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, the Marquesas, as well as parts of Australia use half-hour deviations from standard time, and some nations, such as Nepal, and some provinces, such as the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, use quarter-hour deviations. Some countries, such as China and India, use a single time zone even though the extent of their territory far exceeds 15° of longitude.