Samoa's clock change

by Rebecca Macfie / 31 December, 2011
To get in sync with its trading partners, Samoa is putting its clocks forward a day – but US science writer James Gleick says it’s all an illusion anyway.


At midnight on December 29, Samoa will leap from one side of an imaginary line to the other, skip a day, and go from being one of the last places on Earth to see the sun set to being one of the first to see it rise.

The reasoning is that by being in the same day as New Zealand, Australia and Asia – Samoa’s key economic partners – trade will be boosted. The problem for the tiny nation, explains Prime Minister
Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, has been that when Sydney and Auckland are at the office on Monday, Samoa is at church; and when Samoa is at work on Friday, Auckland and Sydney are at leisure on Saturday.

The decision to leap to the west of the international dateline is a reversal of a shift made in the opposite direction in 1892, when King Malietoa Laupepa shifted Samoa back a day, to boost trade with the
US and Europe.

However pragmatic Samoa’s reasons, the decision to skip December 30 is a reminder that the concept of standard time is merely a convention – albeit a fundamental building block of globalisation.

US science writer James Gleick admits he still finds crossing the international dateline and either losing or gaining a day “mind boggling”.

But as he explains in his book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, the development of standardised time in the 19th century was a byproduct of technology – in particular the growth of large railway networks, and the spread of long-distance communication via the telegraph.

“Formerly all time was local: when the sun was highest, that was noon,” says Gleick. “Only a visionary (or an astronomer) would know that people in a different place lived by a different clock.” However, the development of railroads “required standard time, and the telegraph made it feasible”. Before railways, “only a very few people were able to travel long distances and cared what time it was, and those people were sailors.

They were certainly aware that their place on the face of the globe was changing as they sailed along and they were continually updating their sense of what time it was according to the sun. But they weren’t travelling fast enough for it to matter. It wasn’t as if they were communicating with anyone for whom the time was different.”

The process of developing standard time began in the 1840s when the Astronomer Royal arranged wires from the Observatory in Greenwich to the Electric Telegraph Company in Lothbury, intending to synchronise England’s clocks. As the telegraph took off, commentators spoke of how it “annihilated” time and space. But instead of annihilating time, says Gleick, the new technologies made the standardisation of time essential.

Many objected to the development of standard or “railroad” time, wrote Gleick in an earlier book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. “The chopping up of time into rigid periods is an invasion of freedom, and makes no allowances for differences in temperament and feeling,” wrote a contributor to Harpers magazine in 1884.

Yet Gleick says standard time became a coveted commodity – town jewellers bought it from observatories for large annual fees and advertised it in their shop windows. When telephone networks developed, the information most commonly sought from operators was the time of the day. In 1884 the need for a global system of time led to the Meridian Conference in Washington, DC. The 27 nations in attendance agreed the zero meridian line would pass through the Greenwich Observatory, with the international dateline at 180° longitude running through the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Samoa’s switch will make that already wiggly line even more uneven, and will place it a day ahead of its neighbour American Samoa. According to Prime Minister Malielegaoi, this will open up opportunities for tourism operators to market the idea of popping from one side of the date line to the other to celebrate two birthdays or two anniversaries.

Says Gleick: “It’s bizarre that you can take a half-hour plane ride and find yourself a full day in the past or a full day in the future, or repeat an entire day – or whatever travel agencies are going to be promoting. But it’s no more bizarre than the whole thing is all the time. We just get used to it and we forget that we have created this whole structure of fictional time.”

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