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My favourite fact of the day – a French decimal time system

Posted on 23 December 2009 | 4:12pm

Every now and then you read something that makes you go ‘wow, I never knew that,’ and then it sticks with you sufficient for you to memorise it, not least because you spend far too much time thinking about it.

I came across one such something this morning, in an article about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s stated intention of cutting Russian time zones from eleven to four. Apparently he thinks the Russian economy will become more efficient if they reduce the number of zones, so that East and West Russia can spend more time being open for business simultaneously. He may have a point, though the article concerned had plenty of people arguing against him going as low as four.

But the something that made me go ‘wow, I never knew that’ pre-dated Medvedev by more than two centuries, and concerned the French not the Russian Revolution … namely that post Revolutionary France had a go at a decimal clock, in which the day was split into ten hours of one hundred minutes each.

This system prevailed for 12 years before Napoleon decided it was time to go back to the ancient Egyptian system of 24 hours a day, made up of 60 minutes. 

I can’t believe I have got through 52 years without having heard this before. I must have done, but I can’t have been listening or concentrating. But on and off through the day I have been trying to work out how the decimal system worked, giving as it did only 1000 minutes per day, as opposed to Egypt’s very generous 1440. I used to be good at mental arithmetic but, pathetically, I now need pen and paper to establish the relative lengths of seconds and minutes under different systems. And I’m still strugging to work out exactly how a Test Match would operate under the post-Revolution-pre-Napoleonic system. When would they break for tea?

My other favourite Napoleon fact learned this year was that he, or more likely one of his underlings, invented the baguette … a direct response to complaints from marching soldiers that their daily chunks of bread were reduced to crumbs in their backpacks by the time they had marched for a few hours. The baguette was made to fit down a couple of holes sewn into the side of their trouser upper leg. Apparently.

But back to time … imagine the added chaos for Eurostar if we had not just different time zones for London and Paris, but entirely different systems. Indeed, the same piece informed me this morning that the development of British railways, and in particular the Great Western, led to the ironing out of time differences between towns. London used to be ten minutes ahead of Bristol for example.

Medvedev will have his work cut out to win support for a move that may have some people getting up and going to work in the dark. But he can always look south to China, which despite its vastness still operates the single time zone Chairman Mao saw as a way of signalling the importance of central control. China used to have five time zones, which was four too many for Mao’s Peking. I think I knew that already. And even if I didn’t, I still prefer my decimal French system. God – am I going to bore people about that over the next few days. Happy Christmas.

  • Alan Quinn

    The French have also set their clocks one hour ahead from last year to save daylight so some French regions will enjoy “double summertime”.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you too Ally, hope to see you on Jan 21st in Bury South.

  • Harriet Jordan

    Don’t you get the feeling Medvedev is casting around for things to do while ‘Prime Minister’ Putin runs the country and waits to come back as Prezza proper?

  • Naomi Gyles

    Typically offbeat and splendid blog may I say. Merry Christmas to you too. I always come on here for a bit of politics, but am always pleasantly surprised when you venture elsewhere — except for football. Hate the game!

  • Charles Ashburner

    Would a stitch in time still save nine under the decimal system, I wonder. Personally I doubt they’d be able to resist changing it to ten.

  • John Willman

    Bit naughty not to reference the article that stimulated you! And excellent piece by the excellent Clive Cookson in today’s Guardian

  • AC

    John Willman … it was the FT not the Guardian.

  • Rosie

    I’d be very concerned about timing boiled eggs under a decimal system. They might be too hard for dipping soldiers into!

  • John Willman

    Oops – Clive Cookson’s article in the FT, not Guardian

  • Marjorie McManus

    Went from your blog to a map and studied relative size of Russia and China … Eleven zones probably too many for Russia, one certainly too few for China. China probably went for one to show total central control, USSR probably went for 11 as a way of showing they were bigger than the USA. Now they realise size matters more than symbols of size. Odd the Chinese have not changed their ways since Mao went. But then having seen how they behaved at Copenhagen, who would they allow to verify their changes??

  • Adrian

    Back in the 70s BBC Northern Ireland ran an April Fool’s Joke on “Scene around Six” to the effect that this was being reintroduced. being about eight or nine at the time I believed it to be true until may parents told me it was a joke.

  • Chris

    Am I right in believing that France and the UK were on GMT until the Occupation in 1940, subsequently France remaining on CET?

  • BarBar of Oz

    Napoleon was the first neo con!

    Good luck for 2010 and the election. If you, Gordon and Mandy can pull it off you’ll go down in history as the greatest political geniuses of all time.

  • betty curtis


    Thank you for this great & interesting blog

    Happy Christmas & We will need you even more in the New Year to help Labour secure a fourth term