Patrick Boyer posits that time zones, which are artificial, follow political and economic priorities rather than the natural curves of Earth. This is consistent with daylight saving time zones being embedded within politicised motivations.

This week’s shift to “daylight saving time” is a reminder of just how complicated humans can make things when striving to impose efficient order by our invented constructs of “time.”

For starters, as the world’s second-largest country, Canada’s transcontinental geography embraces six artificial “time zones.” From east to west: Newfoundland standard, Atlantic standard, Eastern standard, Central standard, Mountain standard, and Pacific standard time zones put abrupt edges to the “time of day.” Starting from the “zero point” for time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (southeast of London, England), “Greenwich Mean Time” begins the westerly march of hours around the globe, marked off by meridians of longitude.

An efficient measuring system should take no account of seas or borders, cities or farming zones, but politics and economics beat neatness of lines. The 90th meridian, just west of Thunder Bay, being six zones removed from Greenwich, should be a time zone boundary but isn’t. The seventh hour west of Greenwich should start on the 105th meridian, running between Saskatoon and Regina, but it was set instead at the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, the northern part of which is on the 102nd meridian, so all Saskatchewanians would live in the same time zone. From inception, compromises to accommodate human communities altered the measured boundary lines of time.

Meanwhile from south to north, we simultaneously accommodate nature’s own alternating seasons between the lush Carolinian forest in Ontario’s southernmost area and the high Arctic latitudes far above the treeline that bask in 24-hour summer sunlight and are cloaked with full darkness in winter.

Into this convoluted mix was then added daylight saving time. From the early 1900s use of this artificial construct, often called “Fast Time,” was encouraged throughout Canada on a voluntary basis. It’s under provincial jurisdiction, so across-Canada variety appeared. Even the “time saving” schedule itself was altered, from starting first Sunday in April to the second Sunday in March, and standard time no longer resuming the last Sunday of October, but on the first Sunday in November.

War changes everything. Daylight time was first imposed by edict in Germany on April 30, 1916 to conserve fuel for producing weapons in factories. Canada followed suit by 1918. After the war, Prime Minister Borden’s government heeded protests of rural MPs, including Muskoka’s Dr. Peter McGibbon, about daylight saving time’s adverse economic and social impacts. Farmers lost an hour’s work each day, because cows could not be milked any earlier and heavy dew on the ground made field work impossible. Ottawa repealed the temporary war measure. Provinces resumed control.

Urbanites had fewer problems with daylight saving time. Ontario’s abundant electricity for lighting, heating and operating machinery meant offices and factories no longer had to shut down with darkness, while street lights and electrified homes effectively extended winter’s days. But even people whose lives run like clockwork have diverse time-sensitive tasks to perform, so reaching consensus about altering the clock twice yearly remained challenging.

During the Second World War, Ottawa again invoked emergency powers to force daylight saving time on the entire country. After the war provinces resumed control, with a patchwork of mixed results. Saskatchewan contained three meandering time zones, which created such confusion the exasperated railways ran schedules on standard time year round.

The issue lives on. Last March, the European Parliament voted to permanently remove daylight saving time so, if implemented, 2021 will be the last time EU countries make the seasonal clock change. In November 2019, British Columbia’s government introduced legislation to scrap bi-annual clock changes, make daylight saving permanent, and rename the province’s zone “Pacific Time.”

What time is it where you are?

Boyer, P. 2020 “Excuse Me Muskoka, Could You Please Tell Me What Time It Is?” March 12 2020.


David Prerau describes the international standardisation of time, according to Greenwich mean time, as the first artificial adjustment to natural sun time. This artificialisation of time is said to have been globally systematised via various technologies, including time balls, and the calculation of longitudinal and latitudinal grids. 

Due to the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis, the time from one day’s local noon to the following day’s local noon can be somewhat more or less than twenty-four clock-hours, depending on the day of the year. For example, the time on an accurate clock can be ahead of the local sun time as shown on a sundial by as much as fourteen minutes in mid-February and can lag behind sun time by as much as sixteen minutes in early November. In fact, there are only four days of the year when the clock and the sun completely agree. The difference between sun time and clock time, called the equation of time, was originally calculated in about 1670 by John Flamsteed, Britain’s first royal astronomer.

Given the regularity of the clock and the irregularity of the observed sun, a perfectly accurate clock would have to be reset each day at noon. To avoid this, cities and towns began to set their clocks on the basis of mean time: the length of a meantime day is defined as the average length of all the days of the year. Mean time (or mean solar time) was the first artificial adjustment made to natural sun time.

Guns, bells, and time balls.

Mean time was first instituted in Geneva, Switzerland in 1780, and eventually most cities and towns followed suit. Even after mean local time was generally adopted, however, there was still the problem of keeping the population of a large city or region synchronized. Although more accurate clocks and watches were produced, as the nineteenth century progressed, they still could drift several minutes a day. Mean local time could be determined with the greatest precision by astronomical observatories that tracked clock stars, stars that appeared overhead each night at predictable times. In an effort to keep clocks and watches accurate, observatory time was often announced by firing a gun or ringing a bell each day at a designated hour or by dropping a time ball.

Time balls were large metal spheres that were dropped each day from a prominent building or tower at a precise time, often twelve noon. The exact time was relayed by telegraph from a nearby observatory. Time balls were first used to signal a precise time to ships at harbor, so each ship could set its chronometer accurately without having to send someone ashore. The Royal Greenwich Observatory began dropping a daily time ball as early as 1833. Soon a time ball was in use in many cities, so that at the designated hour observers at numerous vantage points could set their clocks to the accurate local observatory time. Thus the daily drop of the time ball fostered a uniform time for everyone in the area. A vestige of this practice is the illuminated ball dropped in New York City’s Times Square at exactly midnight each New Year’s Eve.

The use of mean local sun time and devices such as time balls allowed residents of each town or city to be synchronized, but there still was no coordination of times between different cities and regions. To understand how such a system might be possible, we need to consider that the relative sun times of two places is determined by their location on the globe. The ancient Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, was the first to imagine superimposing a grid on the earth’s surface; his grid consisted of 360 lines (corresponding to the degrees of a circle) connecting the North and South Poles at right angles to the equator, and 180 equally spaced lines circling the earth parallel to the equator. The lines running between the Poles indicated a location’s longitude, and the lines parallel to the equator indicated its latitude. The lines of longitude were later called meridians, from the Latin meridies (midday), because all places on the same meridian had local noon, when the sun is at its highest point, at the same time.

Latitude is measured north or south from the equator. For longitude, however, there is no obvious starting point. Therefore it is measured east or west from some designated line of longitude, and this is called the prime meridian. Up to the end of the nineteenth century, almost every major nation based its maps for land delineation and ship navigation upon its own defined prime meridian of longitude, usually the meridian through its capital city. Britain’s prime meridian went through London, Portugal’s through Lisbon, France’s through Paris, Russia’s through St. Petersburg, and the United States’ through Washington, D.C. To allow precise determination of longitude, the specific location of the prime meridian was usually located at an astronomical observatory in or near the capital city: the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Greenwich, England, just outside London; the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.; and the Pulkovo Observatory near St. Petersburg.

As the earth rotates, the sun appears to traverse fifteen degrees of longitude in one hour. Thus, each degree of longitude to the west, local noon occurs four minutes later. Consequently, any two cities not on the same meridian would have their clocks set at different times, depending on how many degrees their longitudes separate them. Even though each town determined its time independently, the worldwide system of local times worked quite effectively for several centuries. As long as travel and communications were relatively slow, it didn’t much matter that, for instance, in the United States when it was 12:00 noon in Chicago it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:17 in Toledo, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:39 in St. Paul, and 11:27 in Omaha. The relaxed pace of travel, the lack of instant communications, the inherent inaccuracy of contemporary clocks, and the less frantic pace of life all made minor time variations unimportant.

But then came the Industrial Revolution (Prerau 2005, 53-57).

Prerau, David. 2005. Seize the daylight: The curious and contentious story of daylight saving time. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


When daylight saving time was proposed to Winston Churchill by William Willett, the policy was described by Churchill as representing another form of an artificial time under which humans already live. The distinction is made between all forms of artificial, humanly-conceived, time, and a real or natural temporality.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, speaking early in the debate, said we should not begin lying in these matters. In these matters the country had begun lying a long time ago. When the local time, which varies in different parts of the country, was made a uniform time for the whole country, a great departure from the truth was undoubtedly made. You created a standard of artificial time, and we have long lived under that standard. Sidereal time is not solar time. Natural time is not solar time, solar time is not Greenwich time. Clock time never corresponds with the sun time, except on the meridian and on particular days in the year. National time is not local time, and when those who are in favour of this Bill are represented with departing from the true time, I am bound to say we may naturally ask not only what is truth but what is time? I venture to think that it is not very easy to discover ultimate sanction for any human or temporal arrangement. It is probable our arrangements about time have been fixed in the past mainly with regard to supposed convenience, and that they are conventional arrangements, to be governed by what we think is convenient for our general habits. Therefore, this Bill does not propose a change from natural time to artificial time, but only to substitute a convenient standard of artificial time for an inconvenient standard of artificial time (Churchill 1909, cc1777).

Churchill, Winston. 1909. “Daylight saving bill.” Hansard 1803-2005 – Commons sitting. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.