Clock Facts  
The Creation of World Time
The Geneva clock tower c. 1880
Pocket watch showing six different times, Switzerland, c. 1880 (Inv. 2001-042)
Rex Woods: The Birth of Standard Time 1884. Sandford Fleming is shown presenting his concept of zone time.
Showroom clock with dials for eight cities around the world. Junghans, Schramberg, c. 1908 (Inv. 16-2575)
“Geochron World Clock”, world time clock showing daytime and nighttime zones, Switzerland, 2001 (Inv. 2001-008)
The Railway Era

In 1848 Charles Dickens wrote of the revolutionary power of the new means of transport, the railway, in his novel, “Dombey and Son”: "There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in." What had happened? With the expansion of the railway, it became apparent that every city had its own solar time. The first railway travellers were clueless: How were they supposed to set their watches in a moving train? According to local time at the point of departure, or according to the time at the station of destination?
For the sake of clarity, uniform times were introduced in the mid-19th century. As a rule, they were based on the time at the main office of the railway company or in the capital city of the land. These railway times did not always lead to greater clarity, particularly in border cities. In Geneva, for example, people had to deal with three different times. Up until 1886 the clock tower there displayed three different times, one for the railway trains to France (Paris time), one for those to locations within Switzerland (Berne time), as well as Geneva local time for everyday life. 

This unleashed the fantasy of watchmakers, who would develop watches showing various times. In practice, however, these watches could not establish themselves on the market since it was difficult to read time with them.

On the Way to a New World System of Time

When the sun is at its zenith in Europe, it is midnight on the other side of the earth. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, this fact had barely any impact on most people. This changed when people began sending messages around the globe via telegraph cables.
It is late June of 1876 in the Irish town of Bundoran. The Canadian railway engineer, Sandford Fleming, has just missed his train because of an annoying printing error in his travel guide. Instead of waiting for the train at 5:35 a.m., Fleming was waiting in vain at 5:35 p.m.
After this crucial experience, Fleming became engrossed in the division of time and published an essay entitled “Terrestrial Time”. In his essay, he suggested a number of measures that would ultimately lead to a worldwide system of time.
Fleming recommended counting the hours from 1 to 24 instead of the customary 1 to 12. As part of the worldwide system of time, he proposed a world time system independent of light conditions or, alternatively, a division in 24 time zones of 15 degrees’ geographic longitude each. Each of these 24 time zones was to differ from the adjoining time zone by one hour.
The greatest hurdle turned out to be the lack of a uniform prime meridian that could be used as the starting point. There already were a number of locations that were designated as a prime meridian: Greenwich, Paris, Cadiz, Naples, etc.
To bring an end to this confusion, in 1884 the representatives of 25 countries convened in Washington, D.C. for the “International Prime Meridian Conference”, where a consensus was reached that Greenwich would be the prime meridian.
Thereafter, zone times were introduced throughout the world and in 1893 Central European (CET) was introduced in Germany, where it is still being used today.

The Tardy Triumph of World Time

Sandford Fleming’s ultimate goal, however, was not to introduce the 24 time zones but rather to have a single world time, independent of light conditions. This idea, however, did not take hold despite international support by influential personalities.
Not until 1928 was an agreement reached to use “Greenwich Mean Time” (GMT) as World Time, the mean solar time at the London Observatory. In our times, coordinated world time, referred to as “Universal Time Coordinated” (UTC), is still based on Greenwich, except for the fact that UTC is no longer determined by astronomers but, instead, is generated by atomic clocks. To assure that the constant measure of time, UTC, does not depart significantly from GMT, if necessary, UTC is adjusted in keeping with GMT by using leap seconds.