IF YOU'VE WATCHED ANY of the live coverage from Afghanistan, you've probably noticed that there's not much to see on the screen but the evening sky and the stars. That's because it's 4:30 p.m. in Afghanistan as we sip our 8:00 a.m. coffee here in the states. Strange as it sounds, Afghanistan is 8 and 1/2 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Wondering about that half hour? Here's a little history: Time zones were initially proposed in 1878. Before that, each country, and even territories within countries, used their own local time, usually kept by some well-known clock (on a church steeple or in a jeweler's window) and set to noon when the sun reached its zenith each day. As correspondence, trade, and travel expanded, matters became so confused that in 1884 a conference was organized in Washington, D.C., to find a solution. The International Prime Meridian Conference, an agreement among twenty-five Western nations, declared the Greenwich Observatory in England the prime meridian (a great disappointment to the French, who desperately wanted Paris to hold the honor). The conference divided the world into 24 time zones of 15 degrees of longitude, each representing 1 hour. Seems simple enough--but there are complications. China, which is as wide as the United States, uses just one time zone. Afghanistan is only one of a handful of Middle Eastern countries with time zones that are off by half an hour or even 90 minutes from their official longitudinal position. And Australia even went so far as to change the date for the beginning of daylight saving time for the 2000 summer Olympics. The reason for these inconsistencies has nothing to do with astronomy, and everything to do with convenience and custom. Iran, for example, is nearly bisected by the 45 degree east meridian. Rather than requiring residents of this Alaska-sized country to live in two different time zones, Iran kept to a single time by splitting the difference and subtracting 30 minutes from their lead time zone. Which is also the reason for the odd half-hour discord we see in Afghanistan. And even Antarctica has made some adjustments and consolidated under one time zone. Since segments of longitude and lines of latitude are very narrow at the poles, Antarctica would be divided into 24 very thin time zones if it followed the convention. And if you think a country must have a substantial reason for fudging its time zone, think again. China's reason for adopting one continuous time zone (instead of the appropriated five) is the simplest of them all: It wanted uniformity. Despite the Conference of 1884, there is no international regulating authority when it comes to time. Countries are free to either follow the guidelines or set their clocks as they please. Elizabeth Royal is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.
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