We may think of their being only one time and therefore one timescale. Sure, we’re all aware of time zones where the clock has to be pushed back an hour but we all obey the same time surely?
Well actually we don’t. There are numerous different timescales all developed for different reasons are too numerous to mention them all but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the idea of a single timescale, used y everybody came into effect.
It was the advent of the railway that provoked the first national timescale in the UK (Railway time) before then people would use noon as a basis for time and set their clocks to it. It rarely mattered if your watch was five minutes faster than your neighbours but the invention of the trains and the railway timetable soon changed all that.
The railway timetable was only useful if people all used the same time scale. A train leaving at 10.am would be missed if a watch was five minutes slow so synchronisation of time became a new obsession.
Following railway time a more global timescale was developed GMT (Greenwich Meantime) which was based on the Sun’s position at noon which fell over the Greenwich Meridian line (0 degrees longitude). It was decided during a world conference in 1884 that a single world meridian should replace the numerous one’s already in existence. London was perhaps the most successful city in the world so it was decided the best place for it.
GMT allowed the entire world to synchronise to the same time and while nations altered their clocks to adjust for time-zones their time was always based on GMT.
GMT proved a successful development and remained the world’s global timescale until the 1970’s. By then that atomic clock had been developed and it was discovered in the use of these devices that Earth’s rotation wasn’t a reliable measure to base our time on as it actually alters day by day (albeit by fractions of a second).
Because of this a new timescale was developed called UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is based on GMT but allows for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation by adding additional ‘Leap Seconds’ to ensure that Noon remains on the Greenwich Meridian.
UTC is now used all over the World and is essential for applications such as air traffic control, satellite navigation and the Internet. In fact computer networks across the globe are synchronised to UTC using NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol). UTC is governed by a constellation of atomic clocks controlled by national physics laboratories such as NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) and the UK’s NPL.