Universal Time

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Universal Time (UT) is a time standard based on Earth's rotation. There are several versions of Universal Time, which differ by up to a few seconds. The most commonly used are Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and UT1 (see § Versions). [1] All of these versions of UT, except for UTC, are based on Earth's rotation relative to distant celestial objects (stars and quasars), but with a scaling factor and other adjustments to make them closer to solar time. UTC is based on International Atomic Time, with leap seconds added to keep it within 0.9 second of UT1. [lower-alpha 1]


Universal Time and standard time

Prior to the introduction of standard time, each municipality throughout the clock-using world set its official clock, if it had one, according to the local position of the Sun (see solar time). This served adequately until the introduction of rail travel in Britain, which made it possible to travel fast enough over long distances to require continuous re-setting of timepieces as a train progressed in its daily run through several towns. Greenwich Mean Time, the mean solar time on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England, was established to solve this problem: all clocks in Britain were set to this time regardless of local solar noon. [lower-alpha 2] Chronometers or telegraphy were used to synchronize these clocks. [3]

Standard time zones of the world since 2016. The number at the bottom of each zone specifies the number of hours to add to UTC to convert it to the local time. World Time Zones Map.png
Standard time zones of the world since 2016. The number at the bottom of each zone specifies the number of hours to add to UTC to convert it to the local time.

Standard time was originally proposed by Scottish-Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming at a meeting of the Canadian Institute in Toronto on 8 February 1879. He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but they were subordinate to his single world time, which he called Cosmic Time. [4] The proposal divided the world into twenty-four time zones, each one covering 15 degrees of longitude. All clocks within each zone would be set to the same time as the others, but differed by one hour from those in the neighboring zones. The local time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich was announced as the recommended base reference for world time on 22 October 1884 at the end of the International Meridian Conference. [lower-alpha 3] [5] This location was chosen because by 1884 two-thirds of all nautical charts and maps already used it as their prime meridian. [6] The conference did not adopt Fleming's time zones because they were outside the purpose for which it was called, which was to choose a basis for universal time (as well as a prime meridian).

During the period between 1848 and 1972, all of the major countries adopted time zones based on the Greenwich meridian. [7]

In 1935, the term Universal Time was recommended by the International Astronomical Union as a more precise term than Greenwich Mean Time, because GMT could refer to either an astronomical day starting at noon or a civil day starting at midnight. [8] In some countries, the term Greenwich Mean Time persists in common usage to this day in reference to civil timekeeping.


Based on the rotation of the Earth, time can be measured by observing celestial bodies crossing the meridian every day. Astronomers found that it was more accurate to establish time by observing stars as they crossed a meridian rather than by observing the position of the Sun in the sky. Nowadays, UT in relation to International Atomic Time (TAI) is determined by Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) observations of distant quasars, a method which can determine UT1 to within 15 microseconds or better. [9] [10]

An 1853 "Universal Dial Plate" showing the relative times of "all nations" before the adoption of universal time Universal Dial Plate or Times of all Nations, 1854.jpg
An 1853 "Universal Dial Plate" showing the relative times of "all nations" before the adoption of universal time

The rotation of the Earth and UT are monitored by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS). The International Astronomical Union also is involved in setting standards, but the final arbiter of broadcast standards is the International Telecommunication Union or ITU. [11]

The rotation of the Earth is somewhat irregular and also is very gradually slowing due to tidal acceleration. Furthermore, the length of the second was determined from observations of the Moon between 1750 and 1890. All of these factors cause the modern mean solar day, on the average, to be slightly longer than the nominal 86,400 SI seconds, the traditional number of seconds per day. [lower-alpha 4] As UT is thus slightly irregular in its rate, astronomers introduced Ephemeris Time, which has since been replaced by Terrestrial Time (TT). Because Universal Time is determined by the Earth's rotation, which drifts away from more precise atomic-frequency standards, an adjustment (called a leap second) to this atomic time is needed since (as of 2019) 'broadcast time' remains broadly synchronised with solar time. [lower-alpha 5] Thus, the civil broadcast standard for time and frequency usually follows International Atomic Time closely, but occasionally step (or "leap") in order to prevent them from drifting too far from mean solar time.

Barycentric Dynamical Time (TDB), a form of atomic time, is now used in the construction of the ephemerides of the planets and other solar system objects, for two main reasons. [12] First, these ephemerides are tied to optical and radar observations of planetary motion, and the TDB time scale is fitted so that Newton's laws of motion, with corrections for general relativity, are followed. Next, the time scales based on Earth's rotation are not uniform and therefore, are not suitable for predicting the motion of bodies in our solar system.


There are several versions of Universal Time:

ERA = 2π(0.7790572732640 + 1.00273781191135448Tu) radians
where Tu = (Julian UT1 date - 2451545.0) [14]
where t is the time as fraction of the Besselian year. [16]

Adoption in various countries

The table shows the dates of adoption of time zones based on the Greenwich meridian, including half-hour zones.

Apart from Nepal Standard Time (UTC+05:45), the Chatham Standard Time Zone (UTC+12:45) used in New Zealand's Chatham Islands [19] and the officially unsanctioned Central Western Time Zone (UTC+8:45) used in Eucla, Western Australia and surrounding areas, all time zones in use are defined by an offset from UTC that is a multiple of half an hour, and in most cases a multiple of an hour.

See also


  1. The Earth's solar day is not constant.
  2. Despite its mandatory use on Great Western Railway stations from 1847 and thus widespread informal adoption, it was not until the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act 1880 that it became law. [2]
  3. Voting took place on 13 October.
  4. 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds.
  5. Continuation of this principle is under active debate in standards bodies. See Leap second#Future of leap seconds
  6. legal in 1918 (Standard Time Act)
  7. Legal time reverted to Amsterdam time 1909; to Central European Time 1940,
  8. except Natal


  1. Guinot 2011, p. S181.
  2. Harry Rosehill (31 May 2017). "Why Britain Sets Its Clocks To London". Londonist.com. Retrieved 25 November 2019.
  3. Howse 1997, ch. 4.
  4. Fleming, Sandford (1886). "Time-reckoning for the twentieth century". Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (1): 345–366. Reprinted in 1889: Time-reckoning for the twentieth century at the Internet Archive .
  5. Howse 1997, pp. 12, 137.
  6. Howse 1997, ch. 5.
  7. Howse 1997, ch. 6.
  8. McCarthy & Seidelmann 2009, p. 14.
  9. McCarthy & Seidelmann 2009, pp. 68–9.
  10. Urban & Seidelmann 2013, p. 175.
  11. McCarthy & Seidelmann 2009, Ch. 18.
  12. Urban & Seidelmann 2013 , p. 7. Strictly speaking, a major producer of ephemerides, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, uses a time scale they derive, Teph, which is functionally equivalent to TDB.
  13. Urban & Seidelmann 2013, p. 81.
  14. McCarthy & Seidelmann 2009, pp. 15–17, 62–64, 68–69, 76.
  15. IERS n.d.
  16. Date and Time Definitions n.d.
  17. McCarthy & Seidelmann 2009, Ch. 14.
  18. Howse 1980 , pp. 154–5. Names have not been updated.
  19. HM Nautical Almanac Office 2015.

Related Research Articles

International Atomic Time is a high-precision atomic coordinate time standard based on the notional passage of proper time on Earth's geoid. It is the principal realisation of Terrestrial Time. It is also the basis for Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is used for civil timekeeping all over the Earth's surface. As of 1 January 2017, when another leap second was added, TAI is exactly 37 seconds ahead of UTC. The 37 seconds results from the initial difference of 10 seconds at the start of 1972, plus 27 leap seconds in UTC since 1972.

Δ<i>T</i> (timekeeping) Measure of variation of solar time from atomic time

In precise timekeeping, ΔT is a measure of the cumulative effect of the departure of the Earth's rotation period from the fixed-length day of atomic time. Formally it is the time difference obtained by subtracting Universal Time from Terrestrial Time : ΔT = TT − UT. The value of ΔT for the start of 1902 was approximately zero; for 2002 it was about 64 seconds. So the Earth's rotations over that century took about 64 seconds longer than would be required for days of atomic time. As well as this long-term drift in the length of the day there are short-term fluctuations in the length of day which are dealt with separately.

The term ephemeris time can in principle refer to time in connection with any astronomical ephemeris. In practice it has been used more specifically to refer to:

  1. a former standard astronomical time scale adopted in 1952 by the IAU, and superseded in the 1970s. This time scale was proposed in 1948, to overcome the drawbacks of irregularly fluctuating mean solar time. The intent was to define a uniform time based on Newtonian theory. Ephemeris time was a first application of the concept of a dynamical time scale, in which the time and time scale are defined implicitly, inferred from the observed position of an astronomical object via the dynamical theory of its motion.
  2. a modern relativistic coordinate time scale, implemented by the JPL ephemeris time argument Teph, in a series of numerically integrated Development Ephemerides. Among them is the DE405 ephemeris in widespread current use. The time scale represented by Teph is closely related to, but distinct from, the TCB time scale currently adopted as a standard by the IAU.
Greenwich Mean Time time zone

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, reckoned from midnight. At different times in the past, it has been calculated in different ways, including being calculated from noon; as a consequence, it cannot be used to specify a precise time unless a context is given.

Leap second Extra second inserted to keep civil time in sync with the Earths rotation

A leap second is a one-second adjustment that is occasionally applied to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), to accommodate the difference between precise time and imprecise observed solar time. The UTC time standard, widely used for international timekeeping and as the reference for civil time in most countries, uses precise atomic time and consequently would run ahead of observed solar time unless it is reset to UT1 as needed. The leap second facility exists to provide this adjustment.

Second SI unit of time

The second is the base unit of time in the International System of Units (SI), commonly understood and historically defined as ​186400 of a day – this factor derived from the division of the day first into 24 hours, then to 60 minutes and finally to 60 seconds each. Analog clocks and watches often have sixty tick marks on their faces, representing seconds, and a "second hand" to mark the passage of time in seconds. Digital clocks and watches often have a two-digit seconds counter. The second is also part of several other units of measurement like meters per second for velocity, meters per second per second for acceleration, and cycles per second for frequency.

A time standard is a specification for measuring time: either the rate at which time passes; or points in time; or both. In modern times, several time specifications have been officially recognized as standards, where formerly they were matters of custom and practice. An example of a kind of time standard can be a time scale, specifying a method for measuring divisions of time. A standard for civil time can specify both time intervals and time-of-day.

Sidereal time

Sidereal time is a timekeeping system that astronomers use to locate celestial objects. Using sidereal time, it is possible to easily point a telescope to the proper coordinates in the night sky. Briefly, sidereal time is a "time scale that is based on Earth's rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars".

Prime meridian A line of longitude, at which longitude is defined to be 0°

A prime meridian is the meridian in a geographic coordinate system at which longitude is defined to be 0°. Together, a prime meridian and its anti-meridian form a great circle. This great circle divides a spheroid into two hemispheres. If one uses directions of East and West from a defined prime meridian, then they can be called the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere.

International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service body responsible for mantaining global time and reference frame standards

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), formerly the International Earth Rotation Service, is the body responsible for maintaining global time and reference frame standards, notably through its Earth Orientation Parameter (EOP) and International Celestial Reference System (ICRS) groups.

Solar time calculation of elapsed time by the apparent position of the sun

Solar time is a calculation of the passage of time based on the position of the Sun in the sky. The fundamental unit of solar time is the day. Two types of solar times are apparent solar time and mean solar time.

International Meridian Conference

The International Meridian Conference was a conference held in October 1884 in Washington, D.C., in the United States, to determine a prime meridian for international use. The conference was held at the request of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. The subject to discuss was the choice of "a meridian to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world". It resulted in the recommendation of the Greenwich Meridian as the international standard for zero degrees longitude.

Equation of time apparent solar time minus mean solar time

The equation of time describes the discrepancy between two kinds of solar time. The word equation is used in the medieval sense of "reconcile a difference". The two times that differ are the apparent solar time, which directly tracks the diurnal motion of the Sun, and mean solar time, which tracks a theoretical mean Sun with uniform motion. Apparent solar time can be obtained by measurement of the current position of the Sun, as indicated by a sundial. Mean solar time, for the same place, would be the time indicated by a steady clock set so that over the year its differences from apparent solar time would have a mean of zero.

Prime meridian (Greenwich)

The prime meridian is a geographical reference line that passes through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in London, England. It was first established by Sir George Airy in 1851, and by 1884, over two-thirds of all ships and tonnage used it as the reference meridian on their charts and maps. In October of that year, at the behest of US President Chester A. Arthur, 41 delegates from 25 nations met in Washington, D.C., United States, for the International Meridian Conference. This conference selected the meridian passing through Greenwich as the official prime meridian due to its popularity. However, France abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris meridian for several decades. In the 18th century, London lexicographer Malachy Postlethwayt published his African maps showing the "Meridian of London" intersecting the Equator a few degrees west of the later meridian and Accra, Ghana.

Rotation period Time that it takes to complete one revolution relative to the background stars

The rotation period of a celestial object is the time that the object takes to complete a single revolution around its axis of rotation relative to the background stars. It differs from the object's solar day, which may differ by a fractional rotation to accommodate the portion of the object's orbital period during one day.


The time correction DUT1 is the difference between Universal Time (UT1), which is defined by Earth's rotation, and Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is defined by a network of precision atomic clocks.

Earths rotation Rotation of Earth around its axis

Earth's rotation is the rotation of planet Earth around its own axis. Earth rotates eastward, in prograde motion. As viewed from the north pole star Polaris, Earth turns counterclockwise.

A tropical year is the time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth; for example, the time from vernal equinox to vernal equinox, or from summer solstice to summer solstice. This differs from the time it takes Earth to complete one full orbit around the Sun as measured with respect to the fixed stars by about 20 minutes because of the precession of the equinoxes.

Coordinated Universal Time Primary time standard

Coordinated Universal Time is the primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time. It is within about 1 second of mean solar time at 0° longitude, and is not adjusted for daylight saving time. It is effectively a successor to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

IERS Reference Meridian International prime meridian used for GPS and other systems

The IERS Reference Meridian (IRM), also called the International Reference Meridian, is the prime meridian maintained by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS). It passes about 5.3 arcseconds east of George Biddell Airy's 1851 transit circle or 102 metres (335 ft) at the latitude of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. It is also the reference meridian of the Global Positioning System (GPS) operated by the United States Department of Defense, and of WGS84 and its two formal versions, the ideal International Terrestrial Reference System (ITRS) and its realization, the International Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF).


PD-icon.svg This article incorporates  public domain material from the General Services Administration document: "Federal Standard 1037C".