How Many Time Zones Are There Anyway?

Nowadays, it’s an even bet that your newest project somehow connects to the Internet and, thus, to the world. Even if it doesn’t, if you share your plans, someone might reproduce your creation in some far distant locale. If your design uses time, you might need to think about time zones. Easy, right? That’s what [Zain Rizvi] thought until he tried to deploy something that converted between timezones. You can learn from his misconceptions thanks to a detailed post he provides.

You might think, “What’s the big deal?” After all, there’s UTC, and then there are 12 time zones ahead of UTC and 12 time zones later. But that’s not even close to true.

As [Zain] found out, there are 27 hours in a full-day cycle if you count UTC as one hour. Why? Because some islands in the Pacific wanted to be on the wrong side of the International Date Line. So there are a few extra zones to accommodate them.

You can’t even count on time zones being offset by an hour from the previous zone. Several zones have a half-hour offset from UTC (for example, India’s standard time is 5.5 hours from UTC). But surely the offset is always either a whole number or a number where the fractional part is 0.5, right?

Um, no. Nepal wants the sun to be directly over the mountain at noon, so it offsets by 45 minutes! [Zain] wonders — as we do — what would happen if the mountain shifted over time? Until 1940, Amsterdam used a 20-minute offset. Some cities are split with one half in one time zone and another in the other.

Of course, there are the usual problems with multiple names for each zone, both because many countries want their own zone and because the exact same zone is different in different languages. Having your own zone is not just for vanity, though. Daylight savings time rules will vary by zone and even, in some cases, only in certain parts of a zone. For example, in the United States, Arizona doesn’t change to daylight savings time. Oh, except for the Navajo Nation in Arizona, which does! Some areas observe daylight savings time that starts and ends multiple times during the year. Even if you observe daylight savings time, there are cases where the time shift isn’t an entire hour.

Besides multiple names, common names for zones often overlap. For example, in the United States, the Eastern Standard Time zone differs from Australia’s. Confused? You should be.

Maybe we should have more respect for multiple time zone clock projects. We’ve noticed these problems before when we felt sorry for the people who maintain the official time zone database.

The Database Of The Time Lords

Time zones have been a necessity since humans could travel faster than a horse, but with computers, interconnected over a vast hive of information, a larger problem has emerged. How do you keep track of time zones? Moreover, how do you keep track of time zones throughout history?

Quick question. If it’s noon in Boston, what time is it in Phoenix? Well, Boston is in the Eastern time zone, there’s the Central time zone, and Phoenix is in the Mountain time zone; noon, eleven, ten. If it’s noon in Boston, it’s ten o’clock AM in Phoenix. Here’s a slightly harder question: if it’s noon in Boston, what time is it in Phoenix during Daylight Savings Time? Most of Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time, so if it’s noon in Boston, it’s 9 AM in Phoenix. What about the Navajo Nation in the northwestern part of Arizona? Here, Daylight Savings Time is observed. You can’t even make a rule that all of Arizona is always on Mountain Standard Time.

Indiana is another example of bizarre time zones. For most of the 20th century, Indiana was firmly in the Central time zone. Starting in the 1960s, the line between Eastern and Central time slowly moved west from the Ohio border. Some countries opted not to observe Daylight Savings Time. In 2006, the entire state started to observe DST, but the northwest and southwest corners of the state remained firmly in the Central time zone. The odd geographic boundaries of time zones aren’t limited to the United States, either; Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia is thirty minutes behind the rest of New South Wales.

Working out reliable answers to all of these questions is the domain of the Time Zone Database, a catalog of every time zone, time zone change, and every strange time-related political argument. It records Alaska’s transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. It describes an argument in a small Michigan town in 1900. It’s used in Java, nearly every kind of Linux, hundreds of software packages, and at least a dozen of the servers and routers you’re using to read this right now.

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