The three-handed clock - an unusual time-piece found in Bristol, England

Measurement of time did not always have the same importance that it does now. The Ancient Greeks got by with sun-dials, medieval monks and scientists had their sand timers and graduated candles - all of which were pretty inaccurate and variable being dependent on weather conditions and the time of year.

In the days before instant long-distance communication and the means to travel quickly, accurate time-keeping within Britain was not a problem, despite there being a time difference of around 30 minutes between the extremes of East and West. ("Big deal!", I hear some of you mutter!) In the 18th Century, towns across Britain used local time and drivers of horse-drawn carriages would add or subtract around 15 minutes per 24hours depending on whether they were travelling east or west, and everything ticked along fairly smoothly.

The problems began in the early 19th Century with the advent of the railway and the telegraph. In 1840, Great Western Railway ordered that London Time be used at all destinations so that timetabling could be made easier. This seemed a sensible idea, except that the travelling public had to remember to calculate London Time when looking at their time-pieces. In Bristol merchants got fed-up with missing their train because maybe they had had one beer too many and had forgotten to add the 11 minutes necessary to be at the station on time! Hence the three-handed clock was born, and mounted for all to see above the Market Place. This clock had one hour hand but two minute hands, permanently fixed 11 minutes apart so that they could see at a glance what time the train was due. So long as they could remember which hand was which, the problem was solved!

The final solution came in the summer of 1880 when a bill to use a Standard Time across the whole country was passed through Parliament. This time was Greenwich Mean Time, the time by which the whole world now sets its clocks.

The three-handed clock still stands above the Market Place and is a constant reminder that time zones once existed even across a small country like England.

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