Thought Leadership

Universal time

By Colin Walls

Most people feel the need to know the date and have a fairly accurate idea of what time it is. We also assume that date and time are fixed things, which have a basis in logic. The seven day week is totally arbitrary and I proposed an alternative on a previous occasion. Today I want to turn my attention to time.

Our system for telling the time is based upon the rotation of the Earth or, more commonly, the equivalent apparent motion of the Sun across the sky. But, if only it were really that simple …

It was decided long ago to divide the day into an arbitrary set of units – hours/minutes/seconds. The baseline is Noon, which is defined as the moment when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky, and that is the exact middle of the day. So far, so good.

This nice clean solution was broken by a couple innovations. The first was the adoption of universal time across countries or states, which in turn was refined into the concept of time zones. As a time zone is quite “wide” [about 500 miles at the Equator], there is only one point [probably the middle] where Noon corresponds to the Sun’s position. The next change was the stupid idea of Daylight Savings Time, which I have railed about before.

So, if the system is broken and time is an arbitrary concept, maybe it is time for a rethink, which might solve a few problems.

The first problem to address is the fact that in certain places [like near to the poles or in space], it is far from obvious what time it is. The second is the challenge of doing business in a multi-national context – both online collaboration a physical travel.

So, what is the problem for business people? I will invent an example. If I want to schedule a telephone meeting with my manager, I might choose 16:00 [4PM] and put it on our shared calendaring system. He will see it as 8:00, as I am in the UK and he is in Oregon, USA – 8 hours apart. This works just fine. The system even sorts out Daylight savings when we are out of synch. The problem comes when we plan to meet in person. If I am visiting the US and want to meet him at Noon and would like to set up the meeting before I leave home, I either have to ask him to initiate it or work out that I need to set the time as 20:00 [8PM], which is annoying and error prone. At least, on my own, non-shared calendar I can record the time that I will understand on that particular day.

The solution is amazingly simple. It is an idea that occurred to me a few years ago, of which I was reminded when a colleague proposed it this week [thanks Ric]. We should just have a single time that is used everywhere.

This would seem odd at first, as the conventional time for getting up, going to bed etc. would need to be revised. The date would also change at some point during the day, as opposed necessarily in the middle of the night. But this is not really a problem because, as I showed earlier, time is arbitrary anyway.

Some new notation would be handy. Maybe we could just use <day number>.<seconds in to the day> So, for example, it is currently 18:55 GMT on 30 March. This is the 90th day of the year and it is the 68100th second, so it might be written 090.68100. Maybe there could also be a short form, where we define intervals of 100 seconds and, hence, lose the right hand two digits, thus: 090:681 A “long form” version would handle fractions of seconds, when that is important.

Do let me know whether you like this idea by email or comment. But, bear in mind it ain’t going to happen.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at