One Second in Ten Years


Many people aren't aware that today we add one second to the clocks. This isn't a leap year. It's a leap second. And it only happens once every ten years. And there is a lot to learn from one second...

Seconds and Trains

The earth is on a tilt. And it wobbles. This wobble creates inconsistencies between the atomic clocks used to keep time and the actual time. We use the leap years to "catch up" with time by adding a day, but still there is this annoying sync issue that can wreak havoc with GPS accuracy and over time, those seconds add up. So, we add a second every ten years to the official time.

This precise record-keeping creates the exactitude we expect from our daily lives and is commonplace in a "serve-me-now" world where seconds matter. Our smart phones, record-setting accomplishments and the way our popcorn cooks are judged in seconds. And we take it for granted as the way things have always been.

But consider that just 140 years ago, there was no standard time. Until trains came along and all that changed. In fact, time keeping was so imprecise, it necessitated the development of "official" time keeping and time zones because it was affecting commerce and travel. So railroads led the charge for change. Prior to that, the official time varied from place to place, and rail schedules had dozens of arrival and departure times based on ill-defined local time zones, each of which were based on "apparent solar time" measured by local sundials. It was the railroads that first recognized the need to standardize and banded together, using their considerable power to create the first official time zones, which were finally adopted nationally in 1918. It took nearly 40 years to do this.

Tradition Stops Time

The development of standard time, which we use to govern our daily lives, has a familiar path to so many great stories of change, meeting resistance as communities rebelled against the necessary and inevitable. They say when change and culture collide, culture always wins. Until it doesn't. But that takes time...

As an example of this historic controversy, Detroit attempted to pass standard time in 1900, but half the city flat-out refused to set its clocks back to comply with Central Standard Time, which was the official time for rail--the major engine of commerce in that era. It was an erosion of tradition and sovereign rights the deniers cried out. And the debate plunged the community into chaos. To combat this uprising, the Detroit "Committee on Sewers" made a derisive decision to erect a huge and "official" sundial in the city center. Five years later, Detroit finally voted to officially adopt Central Time, using logic and, at times, mockery to wear down the last pockets of resistance.

Think about that for a second (the one you'll get later today)--a major city like Detroit rebelled against changing its clocks by 28 minutes to improve its economic circumstances because of tradition. An outdated and outmoded tradition that impacted its ability to do commerce with other cities, but tradition mattered more than common sense. So the community divided itself, and was plunged into temporary temporal chaos over these outdated traditions.

Ultimately, the battle over standard time ended. As it should have. And our lives are better today because of it.

Flags and Fallacies

I see this concept of tradition vs inevitability playing itself out today in debates over flying the confederate flag and marriage (in)equality. Of rainbows and the rebel yell. Of the traditions of the past, competing with what is right for our future. And so, while it may be a controversy today, I ask you to consider that this dynamic has played itself out throughout the centuries. Change is inevitable, but progess is an option. And we should progress. Nowhere is this more evident than in something we take for granted every day: standard time. It is the hallmark of how we run our daily lives, is a driver for all our economies, and there is no debate of its value to how we work as a society. I see these recent debates over "tradition" in the same light.

So, I ask you to use your extra second today to consider the journey of accurate timekeeping, and how tradition and reason often times find themselves at odds. Since it happens only once a decade, it seems like a great chance to contemplate contemporaneousness and cultural change.

So I urge you to use your extra second today to do something other than pop the popcorn a little longer. Because if you're not careful, you just might burn it. 

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