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The day of two noons

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In today’s Nigeria, time still stands still for the big man.

A few weeks ago, I sat for hours at the airport in Abuja as all flights were grounded because President Buhari was returning from the UK. What was meant to be a 4pm flight back to Lagos, eventually took off at 8pm. These kind of delays, because of “VIP movement” are not new in Nigeria, and they provide an insight into whether we will ever make progress.

Universal Time is a time standard based on the earth’s rotation relative to distant celestial objects, but with adjustments to make them closer to solar time.

UT1, which is the principal form of Universal Time, is the same everywhere on Earth. It is the time in use by all aeroplanes once they cross the 35,000 foot mark. This is important so that none of the 102,465 flights that take off from the world’s airports each day do not bump into each other midair.

An American economist, Steve Hanke, has proposed that the current time zones should be abolished in favour of Universal Time.

In fact, Hanke, who happens to be a professor of Economics, along with his colleague Richard Henry, a professor of Physics and Astronomy, has developed the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, which aims to reform the current Gregorian calendar by making every year identical.

Think about it, it would be 8pm in Lagos when it is 8pm in Houston, and 8pm in Dubai, and 10 June will always be a Monday each year, every year. One advantage is it would simplify financial calculations.

Hanke’s proposal in our interconnected world, and is not so crazy as businesses will be able to plan with precision, and it won’t be the first time that the world is changing the time system because of progress. It’s all about the economy you see…

Before the invention of trains, pretty much every town had its own “local time,” based on the position of the sun in the sky. When it was noon in Greenwich near London, it was 11:50am in Bristol 160 miles away.

In the US there were 38 local times in Michigan. You see up until about 1839, the fastest anyone had ever travelled was by horse, thus, Bristol was at least 12 hours from Greenwich with hard riding, and time did not mean much. The coming of trains sped things up a fair bit, and Bristol was suddenly three hours away from Greenwich. Synchronised time began to mean something.

Eventually, starting with the Great Western Railway in 1840, the new railroads began to adopt a standard time. On 23 August, 1852, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich began to transmit signals to the various train companies in the UK to help set the clock, and this became known as Greenwich Mean Time.

In the US, in 1870 Charles Dowd, a high school principal, suggested dividing the US into four vertical areas where the time was the same in each area. Dowd’s proposal was not immediately accepted by American railroads, but as more people and goods began to move by rail and America grew from being a collection of isolated towns to a modern country as we know it, it became clear that the old system was no longer working.

In 1880, a meteorologist revived Dowd’s idea, and William F. Allen, who was the secretary of the General Time Convention that tracked the schedules of the various railroads and towns, decided that the era of every town having its own time was over. He drew up the borders of the new time zones through railroad stations in major cities.

Allen had to convince all the major cities to go along with his plan, and he had to get over some pretty powerful objections.

A pastor in Tennessee said that “God only gives time,” but more importantly, Wayne MacVeagh, the US Attorney-General insisted that it was the job of the government, to decide the time, and ordered all US government agencies not to obey the time zones that Allen created.

But business is business, and the confusion was costing the railroads a lot of money, so they made the new time zones happen anyway.

The time zones were inaugurated on Sunday, 18 November, 1883, when each railroad station clock was reset as standard-time noon was reached within each time zone.

In New York, local time was four minutes before the Naval Observatory, which was the agreed signal, sounded noon. But once the Naval Observatory called noon, it stuck. That day was called the Day of Two Noons.

The next day, the AG, MacVeagh, who had ordered that the time zones be disobeyed, leisurely walked to his train station in Philadelphia, only to find that the train had gone without him. The US government eventually conformed.

How does this apply to modern Nigeria?

We have just been told a story of how there was a need to make the economy more efficient, and even the might of the government could not hold back progress.

I daresay that if Mr. MacVeagh was the Nigerian AGF, the train would have waited for him. 140 years ago, there was already a mindset in America, of making the right move for the whole, not just for the big man. In today’s Nigeria, time still stands still for the big man.


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