Story: Timekeeping

Page 1. Time past

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At the start of the 21st century New Zealanders were governed by New Zealand standard time, exactly 12 hours ahead of Co-ordinated Universal Time, and accurate to many millionths of a second. This level of timekeeping has evolved during a long history.

Traditional time

For people in pre-industrial societies, the passage of time was measured by natural rhythms – the rising and setting of the sun marked day and night, the seasons clocked years, the waxing and waning of the moon told months. Such markers were used by Māori in New Zealand.

In Europe other markers also evolved. The seven days of the week had been established for over 1,000 years, and Christianity recognised Sunday as a day of rest. From about 1600 onwards people accepted a 24-hour daily cycle, its passage told by sundials and water clocks.

Scientific methods

In the 18th century, during the era of the Enlightenment, scientific observation began to replace traditional ideas, including ways of telling time. In 1752 Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar. This adjusted the number of days in the year by using leap days, so that the calendar corresponded with the natural (solar) year.

Southern seasons

While it was relatively easy for British settlers to bring their concepts of clock time to New Zealand, it was harder to adjust to the seasons. There were few who did not find it strange to have short days in June and July, or to celebrate Christmas in the summer. Only comparatively recently has the summer-flowering pōhutukawa replaced the holly as the antipodean Christmas tree.

The 18th century also saw increasing numbers of the élite owning large pendulum clocks and pocket watches driven by springs. Eight years before James Cook reached New Zealand in 1769, English clockmaker John Harrison invented a working chronometer. This enabled navigators to tell their longitude by measuring the time difference between their local noon, and noontime at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. Cook did not have a chronometer on his first voyage, but he had four on his second voyage (1772–75), partly in order to test them.

Social change

Social advances encouraged more exact timekeeping. City dwellers wanted to meet at fixed times to transact business or to attend events such as church services or concerts. As a complex industrial society emerged, the need for accurate time became greater. Factory workers had to conform to timetables, to ensure that everyone in the production line was present when the machinery was switched on. They were paid according to time, not task, and began to distinguish between home and work – ‘owner’s time and own time’.

The colonial working day

When settlers came to New Zealand in numbers in the 1840s, some were already thinking in terms of agreed timetables. In February 1840, it is said, Samuel Parnell laid down the conditions under which he would work: ‘There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation’. 1 Wellington workers followed his lead in campaigning for the eight-hour day; there were similar demands in Dunedin in early 1849, and in Christchurch.

  1. Quoted in Herbert Roth, 'Parnell, Samuel Duncan, 1810–1890.' Dictionary of New Zealand biography, Updated 7 July 2005 (last accessed 4 November 2005). › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Timekeeping - Time past', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2019)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 12 Jun 2006