“[Globalization] is the process of world shrinkage, of distances getting shorter, things moving closer. It pertains to the increasing ease with which somebody on one side of the world can interact, to mutual benefit, with somebody on the other side of the world.”
– Thomas Larsson, The Race to the Top: The Real Story of Globalization
The global adoption of military time begins with the origin of time keeping itself, and travels through centuries of globalization to the present day. Over the past century, countries of the world have been able to connect with one another in unprecedented ways. Depending on your definition of globalization, the spread of ideas, culture, and technology has been happening since 3000 BC.
Global Origins of the 24-hour Clock
The use of celestial timekeeping and the 24-hour clock both originated and were shared by multiple cultures in the ancient world. To better understand the global adoption of military time, it is important to first understand the regional origin.
The 24-hour time-keeping system, or military time, originated from the Early Egyptians around 2100 BC. However, mechanical time-keeping devices were not invented until the 14th century, and therefore, Early Egyptians used a different method to keep time: the system of decans. First appearing on the lids of Egyptian coffins, decans were combinations of constellations that rose and set in the night sky. There were 36 constellation combinations that represented unique decans, and each decan lasted for 10 days. This time frame comprised the solar year for Early Egyptians, and this system was used by astronomers, scientists, sailors, and horologists for hundreds of years.
In other parts of the world, the concept of timekeeping also developed based on astrological patterns. For example, the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) in China used the 12 earthly branches to signify the time of day. Though only 12 branches (rather than 24) were used to represent hours of the day, this is not an example of early use of the 12-hour clock. In modern-day thinking, the 12 branches signified a double-hour, meaning that each day only consisted of 12 hours total. This time keeping system was built based on observation of the planet Jupiter and later developed into the Chinese zodiac system– a system that uses animals to represent each year in a 12-year cycle. Because of the etymology and use of the word “zodiac,” the Chinese zodiac system is often mistaken for western zodiac signs, where some signs are not based on animals.
In relation to the decans used by the early Egyptians, the East Asian zodiac system used decans to represent a total of 36 calendar animals. In some cases, the 36 animals were divided into four clusters that represented the four cardinal directions (north, west, east, south). In others, the 36 animals were divided into 3 animals groups assigned to one of the 12 zodiac signs. In the 14th century Japan, 36 animals also appeared on the calendar, though unlike the animals representing the Chinese zodiac, they all had “fox-like” faces.
Ancient India recorded the use of decans for timekeeping as early as 269 AD, and are said to have been influenced by the Greeks, who were previously influenced by the ancient Egyptians. However, between 1200 and 600 BC Sanskrit verses described a time-keeping method that calculated fixed hours and days for sacrificial ceremonies of the Hindu religion. The ancient text that describes this method, the Vedanga Jyothisa, was likely uninfluenced by other cultures when this time-keeping system was developed.
Origin of the 12-hour clock
Though it seems logical that the origin of the 12-hour clock would follow that of the 24-hour clock, these two timekeeping methods were actually born within a similar time frame. The 12-hour clock origin also dates back to Ancient Egypt, as well as Mesopotamia. The Early Egyptians used both a daytime sundial and a nighttime water clock divided into 12-hour increments to keep time. Ancient Romans also used a clock that divided daylight hours into 12-hour increments of equal length, whereas the length of one hour varied depending on the time of year.
Since the 24-hour clock and the 12-hour clock were born during the same time period, it follows that they had a similar adoption globally. Globalization explains the spread of time keeping ideas over the centuries.
For a more in-depth history of military time, check out this article.
Globalization and Military Time
“That this universal day is to be a mean solar day; is to begin for all the world at the moment of midnight of the initial meridian coinciding with the beginning of the civil day and date of that meridian, and is to be counted from zero up to twenty-four hours.” – Lewis M. Rutherfurd, International Meridian Conference in 1884
To understand how the 24-hour clock spread from the ancient world to the modern day, we must understand globalization and how it influenced the spread of ideas and technology.
The History of Globalization and Military Time
Globalization is a concept that you likely learned in a high school history class, but what idea does the term truly convey? According to Wikipedia, Globalization is defined as “the process of interaction and integration among people, companies, and governments worldwide.” It usually embodies some form of capitalist expansion and is generally an economic facet peppered with cultural and technological exchange. Some historians attribute globalization to solely the modern age of technology, while others believe it to have originated during the European Age of Discovery and the 15th-century voyages to the New World. In addition, there exists a line of thought that believes the origin of globalization dates back to 3000 BC.
The concept of timekeeping was likely transferred between combinations of modern-day northern Africa, East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in ancient history. However, because physical geography and relative proximity to other civilizations affected how fast information spread, globalization during the development of early civilizations until roughly the 15th century was a slow process. Therefore it is difficult to say whether or not the development of timekeeping in the early civilizations were independent processes, or if the early version of globalization initiated the spread of military time across the globe.
The Fall and Rise of Military Time in Recent History
The first mechanical clocks were invented in 14th century Italy and had dials representing 24 hours in the day. However, because of the necessary maintenance of mechanical clocks, it was more efficient to use the 12-hour system because the counting mechanism within the clock could be struck half as many times per day. This lengthened mechanical clock lifetimes and was adopted in 14th century Italy.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, modern-day Europe adopted the 12-hour clock system. Notably, the 12-hour clock was used during much of the First and Second British Empire (1583-1783, 1783-1815) and therefore was adopted by established British colonies as well–a prime example of globalization. However, in 1876 a man named Sanford Fleming missed a train in Europe because the departure schedule listed pm instead of am. As a result, he strongly advocated for the use of the 24-hour clock as a standard throughout the world. In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held in Washington D.C. to establish standardized global time zones and a unified prime meridian, an important step during the era of railway and maritime trade development. This conference eventually led to the adoption of military time in much of the western world, and Fleming became a significant influence in the creation of standard time zones.
Globalization and the spread of technology since the late 19th century have led to the adoption of the 24-hour clock by most countries worldwide. Although many English speaking countries still use the 12-hour clock as their predominant form of timekeeping, there are a plethora of professional fields in these countries that have switched to the 24-hour clock system. In the United States, these professions include the military, the medical field, the Forest Service, pilots, information technology and software development. Although the 12-hour clock is still widely used, many English speaking countries have shown an interest in switching to military time. For example, the United Kingdom uses both systems of time, often broadcasting BBC schedules and transportation schedules using the 24-hour clock. On a personal note, I believe it’s only a matter of time before English speaking countries opt to standardize timekeeping methods with the rest of the world.
Overall, the history of both 24-hour and 12-hour timekeeping dates back to the era of Early Egyptians, where combinations of constellations and positions of the sun were used to indicate hours of the day. The development of timekeeping in ancient times has also been recorded in other regions, notably East Asia, Ancient India, and Mesopotamia. Through globalization, military time has been intermittently implemented into historic and modern societies. In the modern day, the 24-hour clock has been globally adopted by most world nations, apart from the English speaking countries that still nationally recognized the 12-hour clock as their timekeeping system of choice. However, large numbers of professions in English speaking countries have adopted the military time system into use. The global adoption of military time has been a lengthy process, however, with the current trend, it’s only a matter of time until the world has standardized military time.