The Royal Observatory Greenwich is famous world-wide as the home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). But what is GMT and why is it so important?
Put simply, GMT is the local clock time at Greenwich. It’s 10 minutes ahead of Bristol Mean Time and 13 minutes ahead of Cardiff Mean Time.
More technically, Greenwich Mean Time is the yearly average (or ‘mean’) of the time each day when the Sun crosses the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Solar time and clock time
Essentially, mean time is clock time rather than solar (astronomical) time. Solar time varies throughout the year, as the time interval between the Sun crossing a set meridian line changes. But each day measured by a clock has the same length, equal to the average (mean) length of a solar day. It’s a way of standardising and regularising time so we can all know exactly what time it is for our (or anyone’s) location.
From 1884 until 1972 GMT was the international standard of civil time. Though it has now been replaced by Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), GMT is still the legal time in Britain in the winter, and is used by the Met Office, Royal Navy and BBC World Service. Greenwich Mean Time is also the name of the time zone used by some countries in Africa and Western Europe, including in Iceland all year round.
Today GMT is reckoned from one midnight to the next.
How did Greenwich Mean Time get started?
It wasn’t till the invention of the pendulum clock in the 1650s that it was possible (or useful) to work out the relationship between mean (clock) time and solar time.
John Flamsteed came up with the formula for converting solar time to mean time, and published a set of conversion tables in the early 1670s. Soon after, he was appointed as the first Astronomer Royal and moved into the new Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
Here he had the best pendulum clocks installed and set them to the local time – Greenwich Mean Time, or the average time when the Sun crossed the meridian at Greenwich. At first though, Greenwich time was only really important to astronomers.
GMT and the quest for longitude
A century later, it was the 5th Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne who brought Greenwich Mean Time to a wider audience. As part of the great 18th-century quest to determine longitude (east-west position), in 1767 Maskelyne introduced the Nautical Almanac. These were tables of ‘lunar distance’ data based on observations at Greenwich and using GMT as the time standard. This data enabled navigators to find their position at sea.
GMT was also crucial to the other great solution to the ‘longitude problem’, represented by John Harrison’s famous timekeepers. British mariners started keeping at least one chronometer set to GMT to calculate their longitude from the Greenwich meridian (longitude 0° by convention).
These two solutions would help pave the way for GMT to become the worldwide time standard a century later.
How did railways lead to GMT becoming the UK time standard?
Until the mid-19th century, almost every town kept its own local time, defined by the Sun. There were no national or international conventions which set how time should be measured, or when the day would begin and end, or what length an hour might be. However, with the vast expansion of the railway and communications networks during the 1850s and 1860s, the worldwide need for an international time standard became imperative.
British railway companies started introducing a single standard time across their networks to make their timetables less confusing, and it was mostly Greenwich Mean Time that they used. GMT was ultimately adopted across Great Britain by the Railway Clearing House in December 1847 and so officially became 'Railway Time'.
By the mid-1850s, almost all public clocks in Britain were set to Greenwich Mean Time and it finally became Britain’s legal standard time in 1880.
How did Greenwich Mean Time become the international standard?
In 1884 the Greenwich Meridian was recommended as the Prime Meridian of the World, at the International Meridian Conference.
There were two main reasons for this. The first was that the USA had already chosen Greenwich as the basis for its own national time zone system. The second was that in the late 19th century, 72% of the world's commerce depended on sea-charts which used Greenwich as the Prime Meridian.
The recommendation was based on the argument that naming Greenwich as Longitude 0º would be advantageous to the largest number of people.
As the reference for GMT, the Prime Meridian at Greenwich therefore became the centre of world time and the basis for our global system of time zones.
The Airy Transit Circle (telescope) at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, designed by Astronomer Royal George Biddell Airy, became the telescope that would define the Prime Meridian of the World. The 1884 International Meridian Conference recommended that the meridian line marked by the cross-hairs in the Airy Transit Circle eyepiece would indicate 0° longitude and therefore the start of the Universal Day.
The first clock to show GMT to the public
The clock shown at the top of this page is known as the Shepherd gate clock, and you can see it today at the gates to the Royal Observatory. It was the first clock ever to show Greenwich Mean Time directly to the public.
It is a 'slave' clock, connected to the Shepherd master clock which was installed at the Royal Observatory in 1852. From then until 1893, the Shepherd master clock was the heart of Britain's time system. Its time was sent by telegraph wires to London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin, Belfast and many other cities. By 1866, time signals were sent from the clock to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts via the new transatlantic submarine cable. In terms of the distribution of accurate time into everyday life, it is one of the most important clocks ever made.
Visit the home of GMT
The historic Royal Observatory is the home of Greenwich Mean Time. Enter the Meridian Courtyard to get your essential photo standing on the Meridian Line and explore some of the oldest parts of the site including the Astronomer Royal's house.
The Royal Observatory is open daily, 10am-5pm.