German Field Marshall General Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke had well earned his pension but he still had one last battle to fight.
Born to nobility, but impoverished by a plundering French army before his tenth birthday, young Von Moltke had translated nine of twelve volumes of Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into German to earn money to buy a horse. At the age of thirty-five, he was hired to help modernize the army of the Ottoman Empire; at forty to direct the Hamburg-Berlin railway, and at fifty-five to serve as personal aide to Prince Friedrich. By sixty, von Moltke was chief of military staff, a position he held for three decades, eventually leading the 3-million-man army of the new German Empire.
In 1891, nominally retired, von Moltke roused himself for his final engagement. His adversary? His own Parliament. “We have in Germany five different units of time,” complained Europe’s most accomplished military strategist since Napoleon. “This is, I may say, a ruin.”
Every nation faced the problem of uncoordinated clocks, even after an 1884 international conference set the exact length and beginning of “the universal day” and established Greenwich, London, England as the zero meridian from which time in all other zones could be calculated. Telegraphs, of course, could transmit exact readings almost simultaneously to every stop along a line-even across oceans-but to unify those readings required the creation of first national and then international time standards and service.
“If a traveler from Washington to San Francisco set his watch in every town he passed through, he would set it over two hundred times,” writes Stephen Kern, author of The Culture of Time and Space. “Foreigners in China’s coastal ports used their own local time taken from solar readings; all other Chinese used sundials. In Russia, there were odd local times such as that of St. Petersburg-two hours, one minute, and 18.7 seconds ahead of Greenwich. In India, hundreds of local times were announced in towns by gongs, guns, and bells.”
What finally coordinated world clocks was competition.
The French had fumed when Greenwich, not Paris, was selected zero meridian. Two decades after von Moltke’s speech, the City of Light consoled itself hosting the 1912 International Conference on Time. On exhibit was a system by which a ground observatory would take astronomical readings and transit them to the Eiffel Tower for further relay to eight international stations.
One year later, at ten in the morning July 1, 1913, the 300-meter beacon broadcast the first globe-encompassing standard time signal. A French journalist declared his capital “the watch of the universe.” Hereafter, Kern writes, “Whatever charm local time might have once had, the world was fated to wake up with buzzers and bells triggered by impulses that traveled around the world at the speed of light.”
Some early advocates of international standard time had argued conflict would diminish if nations agreed when noon came in Manhattan or midnight struck in Mumbai. World War I proved otherwise. As Kern concludes, “The war imposed homogeneous time.” Wrist watches, once thought unmanly, became standard military equipment, synchronized at field headquarters.Today, as then, civilians check their watches based on military technology.
“During the 1960s, American defense planners turned satellites into radio stations that would beam timed signals to earth,” explains author Peter Galison. “More accurate and stable timepieces drove these orbiting transmitters, pinging time at first from quartz crystals and later from the cesium oscillations of space-based atomic clocks. By the time the $10 billion Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system was up and functioning in the 1990s, its twenty-four satellite-based clocks ticked with a precision [of] 50 billionths of a second per day.”