Clocks, Trains, and Greenwich Mean Time

These days, we assume that the time we have on our clocks is roughly the same as that of our neighbors, and when you ask someone for the time, you can be reasonably certain that the answer they’ll give you will be fairly accurate.

That wasn’t always the case, and back in the mid-19th century, when clocks were fairly commonplace, accurate and consistent timekeeping was not.  Each town had their own idea of what time it should be, and most people just set their clocks to the time of the clock in the town square.

Bristol clockThat worked most of the time; after all, there’s no reason for most people to be overly precise about the time.  That changed with the introduction of railways.  Trains not only have to run on time, but trains in different parts of a country that might encounter one another on the tracks need to know what time it is and they need to agree on what time it is so that they can avoid collisions.

Trains still have issues with the time in the United States on the two days each year when we advance and retreat from Daylight Saving Time.  That’s just two days per year, however.  It’s not something that needs to be dealt with 365 days per year.

People riding those trains also need to have an accurate idea as to when the train will leave and arrive so that they don’t miss it.

In the latter part of the 19th century in Britain, the entire country attempted to adopt Greenwich Mean Time as the national standard.  That would seem to be a relatively easy thing to adopt, as Britain isn’t all that large.  It isn’t like the United States or Russia, both of which have a number of time zones and a reason for having them.

Still, in Britain, there were a number of small towns that struggled with the idea of adopting a national time when they felt that they time to which they were adhering locally was good enough.  That led to the creation of some odd clocks, some of which are still seen around Britain today, that had more than one minute hand.

At the Corn Exchange in Bristol, England, there is a large clock on display that has two minute hands.  One is red, and that red matches the hour hand and the hour markers.  That red hand indicates Greenwich Mean Time.

The other hand is a black one, and it’s about ten minutes slower than the red one.  What does that hand represent?  it represents “Bristol time,” which is the time that the local community observed before GMT became the recognized standard.

Britain passed a law in 1880 mandating that the entire country would use GMT as the “standard,” and they have done so.  But not everyone was willing to give up their local time, and some of those relics still exist today in the form of some rather unusual clocks.

It’s interesting to see such artifacts surviving in the 21st century, especially in a period when we have no doubt or serious disagreement regarding exactly what the time happens to be.