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The Origin of the Zulu Time Zone
is another term
for General Mean Time or more recently Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)
used by The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
and The National Weather Service (NWS). UTC is the French initials for
Coordinated Universal Time - french still considered the official
language of the United Nations. The origin of the term ZULU Time and
what it represents evolved over centuries with the quest to measure time
and the longitude.
The fervent desire to determine the longitude at a given location was
prompted by a fatal shipwreck. On October 22, 1707, four British Men 'O
War sank just off the Cornish Coast. 2000 men were lost. In 1714, The
British Parliament , aggravated by this obviously needless
catastrophe, passed the Longitude Act:
A huge sum of money would be
awarded to anyone who could invent a way to determine the precise
longitude of a ship's location to within less than one degree. After
many years of tireless work it was John Harrison a great self taught
British clockmaker who after many prototypes crafted a seaworthy
chronometer. (term not to be confused with the Chronometer awarded as
precision watches by the C.O.S.C) As a result of a dispute his
accomplishments were not acknowledged until George III intervened on his
behalf. John Harrison received his prize at the age of 81 - he died
three years later.
Time and longitude are intrinsically interwoven as to know ones
Longitude at sea, one must know the time at home port and
simultaneously know the time on ship. Once the time difference is
known, the difference by degrees is known and thus the crucial
longitude. The world spins on it axis 360 degrees in a 24 hour period
thus in one hour it turns 15 degrees. If the navigator resets his
ship's clock local at high noon, and refers to his clock representing
time at the home port, every hour difference translates to 15 degrees
from the home port. Thus for navigation of the oceans it was crucial
to have an efficient chronometer on board.
In those seafaring days, global admiration was bestowed upon the
British Royal Navy for their superior seamanship and celestial
navigation. This made American Sea Captain Nathanial Bowditch quite
peeved. It was at the end of the American Revolutionary War and
Nathanial Bowditch wanted to prove that the American Sea Captains were
as good ,if not better, than their British rivals, so he set about
proving this, not by canons or pistols, but by the power of the written
He wrote the iconic navigation textbook, "The American Practical
Navigator" published in 1802. This book took the seafaring community by
storm - it was announced: "This Navigation textbook in sea-surface
celestial navigation is the best book ever written on this subject !"
This book is still used today by The U.S Naval Academy, The U.S.
Coastguard and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. In his book he
emphasized the need for knowing the local time in the log books of
This was prior to Sandford Flemming's 1876 idea of a 24 hour clock or a
Universal time zone. You see Sandford Flemming had not missed his
train at a lonely railway station in Ireland yet. His printed schedule
had not printed pm instead of am yet (prompting him to create the 24
hour clock and a Standardized Universal Time Zone). In fact Sandford
Flemming had not even been born yet. So local time was still critical
for ship logs.
In his textbook, Bowditch designated the prime meridian (0°longitude) as the center of a 15 ° time zone with 7.5
°on either side. He performed this calculation with all the remaining
23 longitudes - each the center of a time zone straddled on either side
by 7.5°. Bowditch then
labeled each of the time zones, he created, with a letter from the
alphabet. He commenced with the 1st time zone, East of the Prime
Meridian centered around 15° longitude, labeling
it as time zone A. He then worked his way East labeling the next time
zone "B" then "C" and so on. However as expected at the International
Date Line he ran into a slight problem, for although the time was
technically the same on either side of the 180°, they
were in actual fact different days!
To avoid confusion he used only a 7.5° time zone East of the International Date line from 172.5° to 180° labeling it as
"M". Rather than hopping over the International Date Line and
commencing with his Eastward labeling journey, he began again at the 15° West
of the prime meridian labeling that time zone "N". Then journeying to
the International Date Line from the West, he labeled the final 7.5° "Y". That left the letter "Z" for the Prime Meridian Time Zone passing through
Royal Observatory, Greenwich in southeast London, England. The Z-time
zone created in this way by Bowditch stuck and the Z time is listed on
almost all navigational, astronomical and meteorological charts today.
Interestingly we know there are 26 letters in the English Alphabet and
25 time zones on Bowditch's chart, so which letter was omitted. That
letter was "J", since it was not a common letter in most languages.
So how did Z-time zone become ZULU TIME
Ever heard a pilot spelling out a name, a destination or missions over
the roar of an engine using whole words starting with the letter
required for the spelling of a single word. "This mission is BRAVO,
ALFA, TANGO (BAT)". This is the NATO phonetic alphabet or
phonetic used by pilots, soldiers, captains or anyone who needs to
transmit critical auditory messages by radio or telephone. The alphabet
was specially designed to increase clarity, reduce confusion, avoid
misunderstanding. This alphabet was used in civil aviation in World War
This ZULU time refers to z-time which refers to the Greenwich Mean Time or "UTC", "GMT". "GCT" or "Z"
Z-Time written by Harold F. Maybeck, Plymouth State College
Wikipedia: Sanford Fleming
Wikipedia: NATO phonetic Alphabet
Longitude by Dava Sobel