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Geography Trivia: Chester A. Arthur and the Prime Meridian

Chester A. Arthur

Chester A. Arthur Research Topic via ProQuest’s eLibrary

These days, the average person takes for granted how easy it is to get from one place to another. Most of us don’t even need maps when traveling. We have GPS technology in our cars and GPS Apps on our phones that tell us which direction to go and where to turn and when we will arrive at our destination. Our phones even change the time for us when we enter in to a new time zone. But, this was not always the case.

The prime meridian is a great circle drawn on maps and globes of the Earth that passes through the North and South Poles, separating the globe into two hemispheres: East and West. This prime meridian passes through Greenwich, England. Governments, however, did not always agree that the Greenwich meridian was the prime meridian, making navigation and time standardization very difficult. Sea navigation, as well as the astronomical charting of stars, usually remained a matter of local, national or sometimes even religious preference. Maps could be based on longitude east or west of St. Petersburg, Rome, Jerusalem, Paris, the Canary Islands or Washington D.C. Needless to say, all of these prime meridians led to a massive amount of international confusion. Although latitude (North and South) had always been measured from the Equator, there was no equivalent point from which to measure longitude.

The beginning of the 19th Century saw calls for unification and the adoption of one common meridian. But the problem was not one of geographical location alone; it was also linked to the measurement of time. To standardize one, would require the standardization of the other.

The Prime Meridian

The Prime Meridian Photo via NASA [Public Domain]

By the 1870s, with the increasing use of rail transportation, there was intense pressure both to establish a prime meridian for worldwide navigation purposes and to unify local times for railway timetables. Great Britain had already solved this problem by using the Greenwich Meridian to standardize its time zones. In the United States, the problem with time standardization was more complicated, with one railroad timetable showing over 100 local times varying by more than 3 hours. President Chester A. Arthur decided he had had enough. He called for an International Meridian Conference, which was held in Washington D.C. in October 1884, to determine a prime meridian for international use. Specifically, the Conference was to hammer out the choice of “a meridian to be employed as a common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world.”

Delegates from 25 countries attended the Conference. The Conference established that the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory at Greenwich would be the Earth’s prime meridian, and all longitude would be calculated both east and west from it up to 180 degrees. The Conference also established Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as a standard for astronomy and the setting of time zones.

Standing on the Greenwich Meridian

One Can Stand in Both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres Astride the Greenwich Meridian [Photo via Wikimedia Commons] (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This semester, there are two good reasons for Geography teachers to tell students about the 1884 International Meridian Conference: 1. It is a very interesting topic, and. 2. How often do Geography teachers get to mention Chester A. Arthur in class? Teachers can have their students use eLibrary to find out more about the Prime Meridian and other Geography-related topics.

If you do not have a subscription to ProQuest products, you can get a free trial here.

Trivia Time:

  • In addition to sporting some very flashy sideburns, by all accounts, Chester A. Arthur’s presidency was a popular and successful one. In fact, after Arthur’s death in 1885, Mark Twain wrote of him: “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s Administration.” The New York World also wrote of Arthur’s time in office: “No duty was neglected in his administration, and no adventurous project alarmed the nation.”
  • The prime meridian also sets Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). UTC never changes for daylight savings time. Just as the prime meridian is the standard for longitude, UTC is the standard for time. All countries and regions measure their time zones according to UTC.
  • The vote to select Greenwich at the 1884 Conference passed 22 to 1, with San Domingo (Dominican Republic) voting against and both France and Brazil abstaining.