BBC: Exactly 125 years after the Greenwich Meridian line was drawn, how and why did Britain become the centre of time?





At longitude 0° 0' 00", the arbitrary stroke on our maps that passes from pole to pole and bisects the UK, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana divides the Earth into east and west, just as the Equator splits it into north and south.

This imaginary line now known as the Greenwich Prime Meridian not only allows us to navigate the globe but also keeps the world ticking to the same symbolic 24-hour clock.

But it has not always been so.

Until the 19th Century, many countries and even individual towns kept their own local time based on the sun's passage across the sky and there were no international rules governing when the day would start or finish.

However, with the rapid expansion of the railways and communications networks during the 1850s and 1860s, setting a standard global time soon became essential.

"The world was in a very big mix-up," explains Dr Avraham Ariel, author of Plotting the Globe."People had lots of prime meridians. Earlier in Europe there were 20 prime meridians. The Russians had two or three, the Spanish had their own and so on."

And so, 125 years ago this week, 41 delegates from 25 nations gathered in Washington in the US for the 1884 International Meridian Conference to decide from where time and space should be measured.

By the end of the difficult summit, which, according to Dr Ariel, dragged on until"smoke came out", Greenwich had won the prize of longitude 0º by a vote of 22 to one, with only San Domingo against and France and Brazil abstaining.

The meeting also agreed Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) would be used as the standard for the world, with the day beginning at midnight at Greenwich and counted on a 24-hour clock.

Political opponents

One of the main reasons for British victory over key rivals Washington, Berlin and Paris, was that 72% of the world's shipping already depended on sea charts that used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian, says Dr Rebekah Higgitt, curator of the history of science and technology at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Greenwich's reputation among seafaring nations and the wide range of maps and charts using Greenwich as the Prime Meridian meant those at the conference" could see that was the way it was going", she says.

Another factor in Britain's favour was that the US had already plumped for Greenwich as the basis for its own national rail time system...



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