GMT: An Introduction

December 6, 2023
Garrett Behringer

If you're familiar with mechanical watches or have a general understanding of horology, chances are you know about the GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) complication. If you're not familiar with mechanical timepieces and the watchmaking world, the abbreviation GMT still might strike a memory from somewhere back in school when you were first taught about time zones and how they worked.

You may have heard about the observatory in Greenwich, London (where the acronym comes from) and its historical significance in being designated as 0° longitude, better known as the Prime Meridian. Maybe you're a hobbyist or you were overcome with a spat of curiosity and you followed a couple of rabbit holes, learning about UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) and atomic clocks, broadcasting radio towers—technology that is a far cry from the star charts and sextons used by navigators and geographers centuries ago to find out where and when they were on Earth. Maybe you don't bother yourself with all of that and just know that when you move around the world, time changes a little.

The history of time is almost invariably linked to the history of travel for a very human reason: we like to explore. We like to move, wander, experience the thrill of seeing lands we've never seen, sail oceans we've never crossed, and in the last hundred years, soar above the clouds. Out of these human urges, the necessity of time keeping became more and more apparent, effectively utilized in every part of our lives.

Unfortunately, the history of travel also casts a shadow of Colonialism. The fact that 0° longitude exists in Britain, that the first adoption of time zones was in 19th century Western Europe, born from a culture of conquering and expansion. GMT 0:00, quite literally the start of the modern time, happens in London.

Of course, this is not to say that time itself is colonial, that would be silly. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that horology has been just as vulnerable to human influence and power dynamics as any other field of study. Thankfully horology as a field has never been weaponized, but the echoes of colonialism still reverberate today.

For example, The British Raj ruled over India and Pakistan for almost a century (1858-1947). It was a rule established after the First War of Independence when the East India Company was abolished and power became consolidated directly under the British crown.

From 1802, Madras time was used widely across the railways of India. It was established by a London born astronomer based on his calculations of Madras' distance (present day Chennai) from the Prime Meridian in Greenwich. Other time zones during parts of the British rule were fixed around larger cities like Calcutta and Bombay (present day Kolkata and Mumbai, respectively).

At the beginning of 1906, IST (Indian Standard Time) was established based on a longitude picked as the central meridian for the country (82.5° E longitude), but it wasn't until after Indian independence that IST was formally declared as the official time zone of India.

The official time zone of India is GMT +5:30.

This is important for a few reasons. First, the declaration of a unified time zone is an act of liberation and reclamation - a symbolic milestone. Second, India's time zone is actually one of eleven time zones that do not operate on whole hour offsets.

Third, it's what inspired us to create Ardra Labs.