People have died in debates ostensibly over lunar calendars and year lengths, and whether elephants can jump, and what time of the day which day started or which year ended, and which thus denoted day is the right day to let your slave cheat or eat the stranger within your gates. And many of those who died did not even know there was a debate, let alone what it was about.
In earlier centuries they simply did not arise at all as day-to-day concerns, and at most rarely as abstract intellectual concerns — angel on pin stuff. Nowadays however, we not only have the technology to measure time with greater precision than our everyday activities demand, we also have the ability to contact each other pretty well anywhere on the planet at a few seconds notice. In an age when it took a good sundial and a competent reader of sundials to tell the time with a probable error much smaller than an hour, and when it would take special, expensive arrangements to get a message say, from London to Bristol in less than two days, or to New York in less than two months, the very concepts we discuss here would hardly have meant anything.
To the best of my knowledge hardly anyone ever imagined time zones till quite recently. Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook referred to such ideas in a light, satirical one-act playlet called "Tickless Time". It opened in 1918, and as such was well behind the time, technologically speaking, but it was good-humouredly thought provoking.
This largely meant that towns kept solar time according to the local noon, something that they each could check on independently, and needed no telegraph for.
Some countries did their best to upset the apple cart; They asserted the personality and independence of their savants by defiantly and daringly adopting half-hour offsets, and a few even used quarter-hour offsets — there is no accounting for... mental confusion, if I might put it so delicately.
The problem that fractional hours and regional time zones aggravated was that people confused the time shown on their clocks as local time with “real time” or something like that. The time to get up was say, six in the morning, and the time for shops to open might be say, eight. This probably struck a lot of sensible people as senseless; Surely the right time to start the day would be 00:00, not 06:00 or the like? Why should the day start in the dark of the night?
Anyway, not surprisingly, this led to great inefficiency, because six in the morning might be dark at one extreme of the country, but broad daylight at the other, not to mention seasonal changes. If there were inconveniently placed mountain ranges in the country, that could add more than an hour to local discrepancies.
And did China collapse in the confusion of having just one time zone? Hardly! In areas in which Beijing time was inconvenient, people simply adjusted their working hours accordingly. If the clock said that it was 10 AM when day dawned, then people in such a town got up about 10 AM, perhaps four hours after Beijing. To them breakfast at 10 did not seem strange or inconvenient, and why should it? Seven in the morning is a mark on the clock, not the definitive time for breakfast. If everything else in China had worked so simply and constructively, we would all be speaking Chinese by now.
The International Date Line, much like time zones, is the result of confusing days with daytimes. Like most products of confusion it is hard to make sense of the line in hindsight.
The idea of the International Date Line always was ridiculous, but by now it has become unbelievable! Every country has the right to declare that the line does not pass through its territory, and most recently (1995) Kiribati shifted the line in the most complex pattern so far. If you were to take that shift seriously, it would be possible to change your date, not just by travelling east or west, but by crossing the equator!
Or if you prefer something less exciting, you can instead cross the date line at least three times in succession on the same great circle course. Maybe more if you are sneaky. You could do it in a couple of hours if you travelled by air.
Anyone wanting to know what day it is, and what time of that day it might be, could consult a watch; wherever we were on Earth, whether North or South Pole, equator or ocean, any latitude whatsoever, including 180 degrees near the Bering Strait, or 0 degrees near Greenwich, whether up in the air or down a mine, winter or summer, midnight or noon; that watch would tell us the date and the time. And to within a fraction of a second, that time would be UTC time, the same as Greenwich.
What could be simpler? (Did I hear someone say: “The brain of a politician?” Go and stand in a corner; if politicians had brains, we would not have the problem!)
You then will find that you have one date to the east of your plane, in fact in the eastern half of your plane, and a different date to the west. If that is not confusing, what is? And on the same planet at the same time, as measured by your portable atomic clock, whether it is midnight or not, what is happening to the date at the International Date Line?
Stupidity is optional; we have no need to confuse dates with daytimes.
In much of Europe and East-Coast America the problem would hardly be noticeable. Under circumstances where that expedient does not suit, one simply mentions UTC when specifying the date as appropriate, much as people in the United States mention the state when speaking of a city; “Birmingham, Alabama”, “Memphis, Tennessee, and so on. That is all very simple; in comparison the complications of our current time zoning system are positively labyrinthine.
I wasn't there at the time of the conference. Perhaps it is just as well. They had some clever people there, but the voting majority would not have listened to me. I notice that at least a couple of delegates liked the “Standard Day” idea, so it cannot just be me!