In 1934, representatives from 26 countries gathered in Washington DC for the International Meridian Conference. The goal was to establish an official longitude—the Greenwich Meridian—off of which to base the international standard of time (the GMT, now called the UTC for Coordinated Universal Time). The industrial world stumbled clumsily towards uniformity over the next few decades, with a production flow determined by those leading the charge toward global manufacturing and production. But as with any decision made by an imperialistic minority, just because it was said didn’t mean the entire world agreed.
Thus, creating a Standard Time set the stage for the birth of time deviants; populations that vary from a handful of counties in Indiana to the entire Republic of China, that determine their own standards of time based on the constantly shifting nature of geopolitical relationships.
Theoretically there should be 24 time zones — 12 east of UTC and 12 west— separated longitudinally every 15 degrees. However, there are at least 30 time zones observed across the planet
Russia serves as a primary example, most recently with its annexation of Crimea in 2014. After last year’s incredibly violent revolution propelled Ukraine into total civil unrest, the Kremlin began a period of political endocytosis, strategically surrounding the once autonomous Republic of Crimea and swallowing it into the Russian fold one bureaucratic change at a time. But on top of these more-or-less anticipated moves, Russia actually changed Crimea’s time, effectively moving the territory’s time two hours forward to Moscow Time. The peninsula of Crimea is completely unattached to Russia and the decision has no real geographical basis, but switching times had an incredible patriotic gravity. “Time is indeed symbolic,” says Hannah Thoburn, senior research analyst at the Brookings Institute. “It removed them from the time zone where Ukraine exists and reinforced the differences between the two places.”
However, Moscow never really adhered to the UTC standard until quite recently, rebelliously establishing its time zones based on Moscow Time. This has wavered from a geographically 'too early' UTC+02 at the outset of USSR to a 'damagingly late' UTC+04 when President Medvedev established “permanent summertime” in 2011, claiming later sunlight hours were better for health and productivity. This move ultimately backfired—many cited health and stress problems (especially in northern regions, which didn’t see the sunrise until 9 AM), and medical reports blamed an increase in early road accidents on the longer, darker mornings. In October 2014, Putin effectively abolished daylights savings time, and Russia fell back an hour into an allegorically-accurate permanent winter.
Prior to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the head of the Coordination Committee of the International Olympic Committee, Jean-Claude Killi, asked Russian authorities to return to winter savings time as it would make it more convenient for people in Central and Western Europe to watch Olympics broadcasts.
Time zone boundaries have been equally contentious, chiefly shifting because of Russia’s immense expanse. The number of time zones has increased and decreased a myriad times, most recently in another leadership spat between Medvedev and Putin (with the latter adding two time zones after the former subtracted them, albeit in different locations). These constant time shifts have affected software developers, especially those who specifically make programs that specifically deal with calendars and clocks. This was totally unforeseen by Medvedev when he implemented permanent summer, and many reported unsynced automatic time changes on cell phones and computers—a disruptive nightmare even to those who have to experience time changes just twice a year.
Medvedev decided to remove two time zones in 2011, believing that less time changes would create a more manageable bureaucracy, which would in turn help boost the economy.
China, on the other hand, has kept it relatively simple by abolishing all time zones and uniformly running on “Beijing Time,” or UTC+08. Of course, this means the population (and the sunrise) is incredibly out of sync, considering that China geographically spans five time zones. While Beijing has a relatively normal sunrise just after 6 AM, those living in the western city of Urumqi could see the sun rise as late as 10 AM in the winter. Establishing Beijing Time was a political maneuver; “The CCP has fostered a fire nationalism in which powerful symbols like ‘Beijing Time’ play an important role,” says Jonathan Hassid of the China Research Center at Australia’s University of Technology. “Hourly reinforcement, in the countryside and in distant cities alike, of Beijing’s temporal primacy helps reinforce national unity under an all-powerful central government.”
But let’s return to the western-most city of Urumqi, which also serves as the capital of the Xinjiang province of China. Xinjiang has been staging a time rebellion for decades, creating a local time two hours behind Beijing Time. “Xinjiang Time” is a relatively small rebellion in terms of the province’s long history of ethnic and political rivalry; however, given China’s need for symbolic centralization, it has no doubt become an important part of the identity of those living in the autonomous region. This is especially true among the mostly Sunni Muslim Uyghur population, who have long faced violent oppression at the hands of the CCP. This lies in stark contrast to its capital of Urumqi, whose majority government-supported Han population is happy to use Beijing Time. Urumqi simply adjusted their operation schedules to reflect natural waking hours, therefore, a store may be open from noon to 10 PM.
Beijing Time was established after the CCP seized control in 1949, extinguishing the five longitudinally correct time zones established by the preceding KMT nationalist rule. Anecdotally, Beijing Time was mandated as a symbol of national unification, with legend having Chairman Mao declaring, “China must have a Chinese time standard, and Chinese time cannot be in the hands of foreigners!’’
CROSSING THE BORDER BETWEEN CHINA AND AFGHANISTAN RESULTS IN A 3.5 HOUR TIME CHANGE, the greatest time change along a common border on earth. However, this generally doesn’t matter, as the rough terrain that makes up the border has only been successfully traversed by non-locals three times in the last fifty years.
Similar to China, India created a single countrywide time zone after gaining independence from Great Britain in 1947. Some have blamed the economic disparity in east India relative to west India’s more prosperous economy on this, citing “an irrational number of daylight hours fast asleep and hours of darkness awake.” India Standard Time also deviates twice over by setting itself in at 30-minute increment at UTC+05:30.
Traveling over to the western hemisphere, Venezuela created its own wrinkle in time only eight years ago in 2007, when President Hugo Chavez created an exclusive time zone for the country by moving clocks back one half hour to UTC-04:30. Chavez cited a healthier and more productive society as cause for an earlier dawn, a theory unsurprisingly backed by his Science and Technology Minister Hector Navarro. However, the intentionally fragmented 30-minute change raised eyebrows, with some saying the decision had political overtones by returning to the time zone that preceded Raul Leoni’s presidential term, which saw the end of the initial communist insurrection in Venezuela. In 1964, President Leoni introduced the UTC-04 time zone, a move that Minister Navarro said was part of Leoni’s tendency to pander to the growing global corporatism of his time. Chavez did not deny this, with a 2007 Reuters article stating that he dismissed criticism by “questioning why the world had to follow a scheme of hourly divisions that he said was dictated by the imperial United States.”
Like Russia’s, the Venezuelan time change had a very concrete effect, this time on the watchmaking industry, which used the Venezuelan capital of Caracas to define the time zone between Rio de Janeiro and New York. Many watch brands have been forced to choose other cities to designate this time zone, using Puerto Rico, Santiago, and St. Barth to make up for the old standard’s uneven time.
The state of Indiana sits on the other side of the unified time zone debate, in what can perhaps be called a study in extreme time zone libertarianism. Though the 1918 Standard Time Act defined Indiana’s eastern border as the dividing line between Eastern and Central Standard Times (thus placing the state firmly within Central Standard), a 1961 state repeal of Central Standard Time split the state’s time zone in two. This ignited a maelstrom of appeals to the Department of Transportation from local counties across the state that wanted to observe either Eastern or Central Standard Times, with or without the observance of Daylight Saving Time. In other words, Indiana became a total time zone clusterfuck.
In Indiana, statewide observance of Daylight Saving Time was only put into law in 2006 after decades of disorganization due to county-defined observance laws, which often led to missed business meetings—and flights—by confused out-of-staters.
As a result, the United States’ Eastern/Central time zone division has been slowly moving westward, now falling (mostly) on the Indiana-Illinois border. With the 2006 state-mandated observance of Daylight Saving and 80 out of 92 counties adopting Eastern Standard Time, much of the Hoosier State observes some of the latest summer sunsets in the United States.
Spain also uses a time zone that is one hour ahead its longitudinal definition; switching from Western European Time to Central European Time during World War II to help militaries coordinate action, Spain kept CET after the war out of sympathy with Hitler —even though the Spanish never entered battle.
Time zone definitions in Continental Australia have also been historically frustrating. It all started fairly ordinarily, with mainland time standardized in 1895 according to the 1884 International Meridian Conference definitions. However, four years later Central Australia changed Central Standard Time by 30 minutes to UTC+09:30. Why? So that cricket and football players could have an extra half hour of daylight for afternoon practice.
But things got really crazy when Daylight Saving legislation was introduced. Observance is a state matter, and only three of five mainland states have chosen to participate. Therefore, continental Australia became five time zones for six months out of the year, a decision that has created a bull-headed debate among all its states. Queensland, for instance, refused to implement Daylight Saving Time because it would be “regrettable that the influence of southern States has taken hold,” while South Australia refused to change the 30-minute offset because it would make the state an “appendage to the eastern states.”
The tiny beach township of Eucla, Australia, has its own time zone on a 15-minute increment, at UTC+08:45.
Other quarter time zones include Nepal (UTC+05:45) and Chatham Island, NZ (UTC+12:45).
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherhill reintroduced the time zone debate this spring hoping to move the state forward 30 minutes to join Eastern Standard Time, saying that the alignment would help boost foreign investments who avoid dealing in South Australia because of time-related miscommunication. However, one argument has trumped all: television spoilers. Commercial TV networks have apparently joined team EST, saying the move would “benefit viewers by enabling greater social media interaction with shows and prevent reality TV show spoilers” by eastern neighbors who get to finish a show 30 minutes earlier.
The Samoa Islands however hold the geopolitical trump card when it comes to shifting time zones, as its changes both cross the International Date Line (thus adding and deleting entire days) and are essentially persuaded by foreign interests. When first adhering to the International Standard, Samoa found itself neatly placed just west of the dateline. However, in 1892, king Malietoa Laupepa was convinced by American business interests to change its time to align with American Samoa just east of the dateline in order to facilitate trade communication with the United States. In an act of extraordinary diplomatic catering, Samoa jumped the dateline by repeating the fourth of July. 119 years later, Samoa time-hopped a day into the future by skipping December 30th, 2011 in order to align with its now mostly-Asian trading partners west of the Date Line. Despite being less than 50 miles away, American Samoa remains defined east of the dateline, thus creating an opportunity for tourism as travelers can celebrate any holiday twice along the chain of islands.
The Kirabati island group also straddled the dateline, but when they gained independence in 1979, they added two new time zones (an absurdly asymmetrical UTC+13 and +14) to skew the dateline so that all of Kirabati could sit west of it. Therefore, once a day for one hour there are actually three days happening concurrently.
All things considered, observing time in accordance to the western standard has been a relatively short illusion. But using the definition of time as a political tool goes back to the beginning of civilization. “From imposing the dates of early agrarian festivals, to setting times for prayer, to the introduction of revolutionary calendars in France and in Russia and the International Time Zone system—[all of these instances] have a socio-political dimension basically bound up with the notion of control,” says former Greenwich Royal Observatory director Kristen Lippincott.
“Each person has his or her unique experience of time, and the idea that this process can be martialled seems to touch some sort of very raw nerve.”