Keeping Time


(This column was first published in the August 26, 2002 Buffalo News.)    


I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.


That lovely old song is taking on new meaning because the ways of representing time are getting out of hand.


Conservatism runs deep in our psyche. After the nation made a good start, President Reagan got us to reject the metric system, the measurement means used by virtually every other country in the world. And an earlier president’s attempt to institute spelling reform was voted down by congress, eliciting a famous one word editorial in the New York Times. Its title: “Teddy Roosevelt’s Spelling Reform,” its single word, “Thru.”


I think that both of those rejections were terrible, but I am less enamored with contemporary proposals for reform of the way we represent time.


Virtually everyone in the world today tells time in the same way: 24 hours in a day, each hour with 60 minutes, each minute with 60 seconds. But, as the recent soccer matches in Japan and Korea reminded us, local times differ around the world.


We employ a worldwide system of standard time initiated at a Washington, D. C. international conference in 1884. The 360° of longitude (those north-south map lines) around the earth are divided into 24 15° time zones, the first centered arbitrarily at Greenwich, England. As the earth rotates, noon occurs an hour later in each time zone moving west from Greenwich. To correct for this, clocks are set earlier. Here in Buffalo, for example, our Eastern Standard Time Zone differs by five hours. That way, in each zone around the world, noon occurs when the sun is at or near its highest point. (In the mid-Pacific a date adjustment prevents us from turning back the clock indefinitely simply by flying west.)


That is, it seems to me, a perfectly satisfactory means of telling time not just locally but internationally as well. If you are dealing with someone from a distant part of the world, you can both refer to what is now called UTC, Coordinated Universal Time, the current time in Greenwich.


Enter the time modifiers. Not satisfied with UTC and its associated time zones, they propose a variety of changes ranging from odd to weird. Consider a few of them. I have included with each a web link from which you may obtain further information and in some cases even download clocks.


New Earth Time (NET): Also centered at Greenwich, midnight (UTC) there is 0° NET and the NET day is divided into 360°. Thus noon at Greenwich is 180°. NET time remains the same around the world -- no time zones, that is. Thus 0° for us here in Buffalo occurs at what we now call 7:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Like our hours, NET degrees are divided into 60 minutes and those minutes into 60 seconds. NET degrees are equivalent to 4 minutes of our time, NET minutes to 4 seconds and NET seconds to 1/15 second.


Internet Time: This one centered at Biel, Switzerland with the day divided into 1000 so-called “Swatch .beats”. Each beat corresponds to 1 minute 26.4 seconds of our time. Biel is where the watchmaker proposing this system is located -- what chutzpah.

One World Time makes no clock adjustments but like Internet Time it changes the time zones. In fact it allows for only one world-wide time fixed on what is now the time in our Pacific Time Zone (the locus of the movers and shakers of our entertainment and computer oriented world.)


Decimal Time: The time zones remain as they are but the day is divided into 10 hours, hours into 10 minutes and minutes into 10 seconds. A decimal hour is then equal to 2 hours and 24 minutes of our current time; a decimal minute is equal to 14 minutes and 24 seconds; and a decimal second to 1 minute and 26.4 seconds. Notice that a Decimal Time second corresponds to an Internet Time beat.


Strangest of all is Official Universal Stimecode (STIME), a kind of Roman Numeral time with no zeros. Nines predominate: the day is divided into 9 hours, each hour into 9 minutes, each minute into 9 seconds. A STIME hour is equal to 2 hours and 40 minutes of our hours; each minute to 17 minutes and 46 2/3 seconds; each second to 1 minute 58 and 14/27 seconds. There are 9 days in a week and 99 days in a month but in their odd way of counting that is apparently 81 days. (Some of this is conjectural as I found the website explanation difficult to follow. (If anyone reading this has better luck, please let me know and I will make corrections.


Some other interesting time websites are The 28 Hour Day, a very interesting adjustment not of hours and minutes but days; ;A Walk through Time", a good historical resource; and some current time references: The Official U.S. Time", great for setting watches and clocks; time and (which provides many links to additional sites) and World Clock, which gives the current day, hour and minute in cities around the world.

I’m happy with what we have now and suggest that we stick with it. On the other hand these differing times lead to some interesting arithmetic applications. For example, you might check out my calculations. -- Gerry Rising