13 October 1884: Greenwich adopted as the prime meridian

On this day in 1884, Greenwich was chosen as the prime meridian of longitude, settling the matter of time once and for all.

Before the industrial revolution, time was a fairly local thing. When the sun was at its peak, it was around midday. Everybody was happy.

But the arrival of the railways changed things. Even in Britain, the difference in time between the most easterly and westerly points is around 30 minutes. For large places, it could be hours. This played havoc with timetables. In the USA, for example, each railway company worked to its own clock, set at the location of its head office. Nobody knew which train was due when. Clearly, this could not go on.

Time was also crucial for navigation. Latitude was easy enough to reckon, but working out your longitude meant you had to know the exact time both at the place you happened to be, and at a fixed spot somewhere else.

One problem was that nobody could quite agree where somewhere else should be. Britain used Greenwich. France used Paris. Others used Cadiz, or St Petersburg. People had been trying to standardise time for years, but nobody could agree. And so, to settle the subject once and for all, in 1884 a conference was called by the president of the USA, Chester Arthur.

On 13 October, 1884, the International Meridian Conference resolved by 22 votes to one, and two abstensions (one of which was France, obviously), that Greenwich would be the prime meridian of longitude. It was, after all, the most practical solution. Around 65% of the world's ships already used it; America used it; the British Empire used it. All of those people were hardly going to start using Paris, now, were they?

Recommended

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain
This day in history

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain

On this day in 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced in Britain, bringing an instant pay rise to 1.9 million low-paid workers.
1 Apr 2021
27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party
This day in history

27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party

Responding to the need for a single political party to represent the trade unions, the Labour Party was formed on this day in 1900.
27 Feb 2021
24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement
This day in history

24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement

On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer made their engagement official in front of the world's press at Buckingham Palace.
24 Feb 2021
24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down
This day in history

24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down

On this day in 1809, celebrated playwright Richard Sheridan was effectively ruined when the Drury Lane theatre went up in smoke.
24 Feb 2021

Most Popular

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it
Bitcoin

The bitcoin bubble will burst: here’s how to play it

The cryptocurrency’s price has soared far beyond its fundamentals, says Matthew Partridge. Here, he looks at how to short bitcoin.
12 Apr 2021
Central banks are rushing to build digital currencies. What are they, and what do they mean for you?
Bitcoin

Central banks are rushing to build digital currencies. What are they, and what do they mean for you?

As bitcoin continues to soar in value, many of the world’s central banks are looking to emulate it by issuing their own digital currencies. But centra…
8 Apr 2021
House prices: from boom to even bigger boom
House prices

House prices: from boom to even bigger boom

UK house prices have risen to new to record highs, says Nicole Garcia Merida. Demand continues to outpace supply, but continued low interest rates, th…
9 Apr 2021