Atomic clock Cs1770 and its power supply buckled up safely in First Class about to embark on ‘Flying clock’ experiment (Image: supplied)

A brief history of (New Zealand Standard) time

One hundred and fifty years ago today New Zealand became the first country to introduce standard time. Kerri Jackson looks back at time.

Time, it turns out, is a construct. That might be useful information for those of us trying to wriggle out of a story deadline, but does it otherwise matter?

For most of us time is something we notice only when we’re running out of it, or perhaps when we can see our Uber Eats dumpling delivery still 20 minutes away. Sadly, this laissez-faire attitude toward the relentless march of time has allowed a fascinating tidbit of New Zealand history to go entirely uncelebrated – until now. A celebration in Wellington marked the historic occasion last night.

Once upon a time…

November 2 this year marks 150 years since New Zealand adopted a standard, nationwide time, based on Greenwich Mean Time. What’s more, we were the first country in the world to adhere to a single time standard, beating even the rest of England to the Greenwich line in the sand.

Prior to that date in 1868, New Zealand was a mish-mash of provincial time zones based largely on clocks aboard visiting ships, or local clockmakers with astronomical skills.

But advancing technology in the form of the telegraph meant wildly varying local time zones had to go. One of New Zealand’s leading experts on the history of our time, Gerard Morris, picks up the story: “The clock time kept in each town became a problem because the telegraph offices were opening and closing at different times, delaying messages and frustrating people.”

By 1868, Morris says it was widely suggested that the entire country move to “Wellington Standard Time”. Cue one of the most decidedly not-famous battles in our country’s colonial history: The Battle of the Clocks.

“Each town had its own clock time and people identified with it. It was one of the things that made them different from a neighbouring town,” says Morris, whose MA thesis on NZ standard time is now being expanded into a book.

While some areas, like Invercargill, which was a full 25 minutes behind Wellington time, immediately saw the sense of standardisation and signed up, others hitched their parochial petticoats and stormed off in a huff. Otago, we’re looking at you.

“Otago, which was New Zealand’s most populous, richest and proudest province, saw it as an attack on their community’s autonomy and identity,” says Gerard.

Though initially Otago refused to adopt Wellington Standard Time, Dr James Hector, director of the Geological Survey and Colonial Museum in Wellington, intervened suggesting basing standard time on the meridian of 172˚30’ east of Greenwich, England, by then, the keeper of a standardised global time. That put the official time line through Christchurch rather than Wellington, and to stave off the provincial squabbling the new national official time was named “New Zealand Standard Mean Time”. Otago relented and history was made.

And while a large portion of the trading world had decided on Greenwich as the measure for a global standard time, New Zealand was the first country to officially hitch its own time machine to GMT, beating even the rest of England.

Bruce Lohrey (L) and Laurie Christian (R) carry Cs1770 and backup power supply onto the plane for the 1981 Flying clock experiment. (Image: supplied).

Modern times

So, cool story … but why should we care now about the accurate keeping of standard time?

The truth is we’d be lost without it. Literally. Without accurate standardised time your GPS wouldn’t be able to navigate you to the mailbox, let alone around the country.

The Measurement Standards Laboratory of New Zealand (MSL), which is part of New Zealand’s innovation agency, Callaghan Innovation, is responsible for keeping NZ Standard time.  The MSL’s director Fleur Francois says there are plenty of areas of modern life that require accurate calibration with standardised time, from making deals, embargoing sensitive information and controlling air traffic to helping the police with their enquiries.

“A lot of people don’t realise is how much it underpins in terms of technology we use everyday – GPS, internet, financial transactions, anything that needs an authenticated time stamp on it.

“We’ve worked with the police on investigations, when it comes to checking the times on CCTV footage, for example.”

She says the reasons of technological advancement behind New Zealand first making the switch to standard time 150 years ago still drives change in its measurement now and will in the future.

Right now our time is set thanks to three caesium atomic clocks held at MSL HQ in Gracefield, Lower Hutt. Data from the clocks is periodically sent to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris, where it’s compared with international data and any required adjustments in the fractions of nanoseconds are recommended.

Caesium atomic clocks are the standard used around the world and accurate to an eye-watering 30 billionths of a second. But Francois says even greater accuracy will be needed if we’re wanting to hasten the arrival of self-drive vehicles.

“New Zealand’s history of standard time has quite a good theme of how changes in technology, drive need for more accurate time keeping. We’re heading that way again, if you look at developments like automated vehicles where incredibly precise location tracking will be so important.

“Caesium clocks are the current global standard and they’re pretty accurate but they won’t always be,” Francois says, citing the advancements being made on more advanced optical clocks, initially to serve the space agencies. We’d explain the ins and outs of optical clocks here, but you’ll have to wait quite a long period of accurately measured time while we pop off for an advanced physics degree.

But, fear not, there’s still room for some lo-fi. “We have hundreds of people who call the talking clock every month from all over the country, checking the time,” says Francois.

Clearly some of us care exactly what time it is, so why has this unique period in New Zealand’s history been previously overlooked?

“I think most people take timekeeping for granted,” says Francois. “And I don’t think they understand just how much goes on in the background to keep it accurate.

“I also think people assume there’s some universal truth that governs what the time is, when actually it’s completely a construct we’ve come up with globally and all agreed to.”

Apathy among the average Joes toward standardised time was true in 1868 – even we didn’t realise we were the first until some years later, and the NZ 100th anniversary went entirely unnoticed in 1968 – but MSL are trying to make up for lost ground.  On November 2 they will host a reception to celebrate our time sesquicentennial. Gerard Morris will be there to relate the unique history, as will the keeper of Australian standard time, Dr Bruce Warrington, a Kiwi. Surely, that’s a sign we’re still “a head” of the times.

Adam Dunford – MSL’s current ‘Time Lord’ – in the Clock Room checking the status of the three 5071A caesium atomic clocks which form the basis of New Zealand’s Time Standard. (Image: supplied)

About time

Some quite interesting facts about time:

  • The current official keeper of time at MSL is senior research scientist Dr Adam Dunford. He is known colloquially as New Zealand’s “time lord”. Because of course he is.
  • The official unit of time measurement is a second, recognised as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the undisturbed caesium atom. So that clears that up.
  • While these days data confirming the accuracy of our atomic clocks can be sent digitally, prior to the late 80s, the clocks had to be verified by taking them to other countries and comparing their performance. This involved actual time travel; or, more specifically, the atomic clocks travelling in a first class seat on commercial flights accompanied by New Zealand’s time lord of the day. The clock appeared on the flight manifest as Mr C. Beam (c for caesium you understand).
  • New Zealand has three official time-keeping atomic clocks. This is because if one goes rogue, it should be immediately clear thanks to the other two showing the same time.
  • When NZ first switched to standard time in 1868 it was measured as 11.5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. That was changed to 12 hours in 1946.
  • Greenwich Mean Time is now known as Universal Coordinated Time or UTC.

This content was created in paid partnership with Callaghan Innovation. Learn more about our partnerships here


This article was enabled by our friends at Callaghan Innovation. They’re New Zealand’s innovation agency, helping businesses to grow faster for a better New Zealand.

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