The Dangerous Game of Precision Timekeeping

From sundials and time balls to the six pips and smartphones, David Rooney charts the human quest to be bang on the dot of time.

Article on Vanity Fair by David Rooney

KGPA Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The bestselling author Marie Corelli, inspiration for the eccentric Lucia in E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels, refused to change her clocks after the UK’s Summer Time Act was passed in 1916. She described people who went along with the practice of advancing time in summer months as “the sheep of humanity”. Instead, she believed in the sun and sailors. In Mapp and Lucia’s town of Tilling, real time was God’s time, and not to be trifled with.

But Corelli was wrong to hold that Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was any truer than its hour-offset sibling. It is often claimed that the development of railways across the U.K. from the 1830s onwards led to the standardisation of time—to the use of GMT across the whole country, rather than the myriad local times kept by sundials on churches and public buildings in each town or village. It is true that railways ran better with one single time on their timetables. But local time clung on longer than we might assume. It was not until 1880 that a law was passed defining GMT as the U.K.’s standard, and in the end it was more about the Victorian temperance movement demanding liquor licensing with time restrictions than it ever was about railway timetables.

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