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History Economy

The Politics of Time Zones

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What time is it? Photo: ToniVC/flickr

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria devoted a short segment of his program, Global Public Square, to some startling news: in the Pacific island nation of Samoa, there will be no 30th of December this year. Samoans will go to sleep on Thursday the 29th and awake on Saturday the 31st. The country is set to hop the International Date Line, moving from 11 hours behind Greenwich to 13 hours ahead of it.

Samoa’s Prime Minister noted in May that the move would be good for tourism—as, since neighboring American Samoa will remain on the other side of the line, “people wanting two birthdays or two wedding anniversaries can travel to Samoa and have them.”

More significant benefits are associated with the underlying shift that the move reflects. As Zakaria tells us, while the east side of the date line was originally preferred for its closeness to the Americas, Samoa now conducts most of its trade with Australia and New Zealand, which at present are almost a full day ahead—an inconvenience indeed. Hopping the date-line is an attempt to adjust to this new economic reality.

But ever since the need for a Line was demonstrated on a Thursday afternoon in 1522 – when Magellan’s Victoria sailed into Cape Verde with a ship’s log showing Wednesday – many countries have seen the benefits of toying with the Line.

Before it was formally established by Anglo-French convention in 1917, Alaska lost a day in 1867 when it was bought by the US and Samoa itself gained one in 1892 (a second Fourth of July, as it happened) when it made the switch into the American ambit that it is about to reverse.

In 1995, the nation of Kiribati – split in half by the Line since independence – decided to force it into the thousand-mile detour now familiar from most maps.

And moving the Date Line is far from the only way to play politics with time zones. In 2007, Hugo Chavez moved Venezuela from GMT -4 to GMT -4:30, supposedly to boost the economy, but the BCC speculated openly that it was just to be different from the US.  In the late 60’s the UK had an abortive experiment with Central European Time, as part of an effort at standardization with the European Community that it would join in 1973.   The legacy of central planning is perhaps a factor in China having just one time zone, despite its size, and in Russia, apparently, regardless of what time it is locally, if you’re in a train station, you’re on Moscow time.

In the 17th century Newton imagined time as ‘equable and absolute’ and God as a kind of clock-maker.  Nothing could be further from our experience today, as Samoa’s intention to hop back across the International Date Line perhaps subtly reminds us.

For some fun tidbits on the history and politics of time and time zones, the BBC website  had an interactive special on the topic in March

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