Writing about the prime meridian poses an inescapable dilemma. The triumph of one line of longitude—namely, the line running through the astronomical observatory at Greenwich, England—over all others has long been a grand symbol of the global transformations of the nineteenth century: the ascendancy of British imperialism, the dueling forces of nationalism and internationalism, the dislocation of space and time, and the arrival of a self-consciously progressive modernity. But, as Charles W. J. Withers fully recognizes, the creation of a single prime meridian was also a crucial episode in the history of scientific and technological coordination, and its seductive symbolism can too easily obscure both its practical importance—in navigation, surveying, astronomy, and railroading—and the protracted complexity of its history. The premise of Withers’s Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian is that focusing on these practicalities and complexities can add significant nuance to the familiar narratives of the global world. The book advances two main conclusions. First, rather than singling out any one decisive moment of agreement—such as the famous International Meridian Conference held in Washington, D.C., in 1884, which formally endorsed Greenwich—Withers shows convincingly that the transition to a single global standard was exceptionally gradual and stubbornly uneven. In 1650 there were four meridians in common use in Europe, all running through different islands in the eastern Atlantic. By the early nineteenth century, these had been joined by an array of national meridians running through astronomical observatories, which were used as anchors both for national territorial surveys and for the calculation of longitude at sea. Already by the late eighteenth century, savants decried the “confusion” and “absurd vanity” of this proliferation, and even as the international community of scientists gradually reached agreement about the importance of a robustly astronomical anchor, other options—such as the pyramids of Giza—continued to proliferate. Likewise, there was no sudden change after the 1884 conference; instead, Withers details a long “afterlife” of new proposals, national recalcitrance, and civil confusion through the 1920s and beyond. The second conclusion is that the history of the prime meridian cannot be told as a simple story of national chauvinism or imperial one-upmanship. Instead, national independence was always in tension with international connection, and grand symbolism was always tempered by practicality. The U.S., for example, officially recognized two separate meridians in 1850—one for domestic purposes, one for oceanic navigation—and disagreements between user groups were common in many other countries as well. Withers places special emphasis on the deliberations that took place at a series of international scientific conferences from 1870 to 1883, where it was prominent Russian and Swiss astronomers—not British statesmen—who made the case for a national meridian like Greenwich over the kind of “neutral” international meridian favored by the French. More broadly, Withers makes a conscious and laudable decision to focus more on the problem of the prime meridian—the ongoing disagreements and debates among different groups—than on any particular solution. The eventual triumph of Greenwich by the early twentieth century, while certainly important, is historically less revealing than the nearly universal sense over the previous hundred-plus years that human progress—whether measured in scientific knowledge, state efficiency, or commercial exchange—was impossible without global standardization. Besides these two big moves, the book also has a secondary, and arguably more provocative, agenda. As implied by the subtitle, Withers wants to frame the history of the prime meridian as a specifically geographic question. This is a departure from most recent scholarship, which has tended to focus on the relationship between longitude and the history of time. Withers responds specifically to works from Peter Galison (Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps ), Ian R. Bartky (One Time Fits All ), and Adam Barrows (The Cosmic Time of Empire: Modern Britain and World Literature ), but more recent work has continued this same trend, especially Vanessa Ogle’s The Global Transformation of Time, 1870–1950, from 2015. Withers’s explicit goal is to set aside this long-standing focus on “modernity and temporality” in favor of “metrology and spatiality”—from the global scale all the way down to the local contexts of particular observatories and sites of international debate (18–19). This is an exciting promise, since the spatial history of globalization is indeed often seen as little more than the outgrowth of new forms of temporality. Karl Marx’s famous formulation from 1857—“the annihilation of space by time”—has been especially persistent, even as it has been tempered by the work of geographers like David Harvey (“time-space compression”) or Jon May and Nigel Thrift (Timespace: Geographies of Temporality ). It remains unclear, however, what payoff ultimately comes from this approach. Withers rightly emphasizes the geographic problems of surveying, geodesy, and navigation, but in his later chapters he also rightly (re)affirms the inseparability of standardized longitude and the global regulation of time. If anything, it appears that the confusions of time—not just railroad scheduling, but also the distinction between astronomical and civil time—were both more pressing and more intractable than any purely geographic problems. While specialists will certainly welcome this book as a thorough history of the prime meridian and its many predecessors, the end result is less a reinterpretation of nineteenth-century globalism than a useful reminder that longitude is always about space and time together. Perhaps the larger question here is about the relationship between standardization and everyday life. The prime meridian was central to debates about the standardization of time, including the lived time of everyday citizens, but it cannot claim a similar role in the standardization of space. The mark of zero longitude did not regulate most people’s day-to-day activities, and the spatial analog of universal time must be found elsewhere, whether in the long history of the metric system, twentieth-century alternatives to latitude and longitude, or the satellites of GPS (where time and space are again inseparable). As much as the prime meridian remains a symbol of global modernity, its particular spatial history is only one part of the history of spatial modernity more broadly. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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