Editor's columnRobin Copeland

French say it’s time to say au revoir to GMT

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) could soon be a thing of the past … if the French get their way.
Behind the move are scientists from France – which failed in a rival bid for the world to run on Paris Mean Time when GMT became the world standard for time at a conference in Washington in the United States in 1884. They have pushed for a plan which would see worldwide time based on atomic clocks, without reference to the sun’s journey across the zero-degree meridian that runs through Greenwich in London.
But the Earth rotates at slightly varying rates, so the duration of each day can be fractionally different. To compensate, in 1972 scientists introduced a new form of GMT – Co-ordinated Universal Time. It uses highly accurate atomic clocks, but is occasionally corrected by adding ‘leap seconds’ to keep it in tune with the Earth’s rotational time, measured at Greenwich.
GMT is the standard that is used to set every timepiece in the world. It’s even the official time zone for outer space. When astronauts wake up on the International Space Station, they don’t follow Moscow or Washington time, they wake up to GMT. And China is said to oppose the change on the grounds that its astronomers want to retain Earth-rotation-based time.
Greenwich is home to the most famous observatory in the world, to beautiful clocks that allowed sailors to explore the seas with safety, and to the Greenwich Meridian.
Britain has a proud history of horology, the science of clocks and timekeeping. The first known mechanical clock was made in 1283 for Dunstable Priory, Bedfordshire. Salisbury Cathedral is home to the oldest working clock in the world – an iron mechanism built in 1386, which gains or loses only a quarter of an hour per day.
Perhaps the single greatest British contribution to timekeeping came from John Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker who invented the first working ship’s chronometer in the mid-1700s.
Since the earliest sea voyages, sailors have been able to locate latitude by the position of the stars, or the location of the sun at midday.
After ten years of talks, Governments are headed for a showdown this month as bureaucrats at the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva vote to abandon GMT as the world’s standard time at the next ITU Conference from 23 January−17 February.
It would be a bitter blow for the British and – to make matters far worse – a much belated victory for the French. Suffice to say that the end of GMT as the world’s benchmark for time would not be mourned in Paris.
Having lost the argument at Trafalgar in 1805, then Waterloo in 1815, how much more humiliation can the French take? They’re still smoldering after losing the Rugby World Cup last year (sweet NZ revenge for sinking the Rainbow Warrior?). The clock is ticking. Will we be subjected to French PMT (Paris Mean Time, that is)?

Robin Copeland