Skip to main content

NZ’s bold step to standard time 150 years ago

Tomorrow, 2 November 2018, marks 150 years since New Zealand became the first country in the world to implement a standard time across the nation.


Atomic Clock Cs1770 going First Class in 1981. Photo courtesy of the Measurement Standards Laboratory of New Zealand (MSL).

Up until 1868, each region operated by its own time, largely based around the midday sun, which varies from place to place. Invercargill was 25 minutes ahead of Wellington, for instance. It wasn’t until the arrival of the telegraph and the steam train network that the need arose for accurate regional and national timekeeping.

To celebrate the anniversary, the country’s official time keepers at our national Measurement Standards Laboratory (MSL) are partnering with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the National Library to hold a public event in Wellington this evening. The Old Government Buildings clock will also have coloured lighting throughout November to mark the occasion.

“150 years ago New Zealand took a bold step against the status quo when we implemented a standard time right across the country. It might not seem like much today, but the decision fed much debate,” says MSL Director, Dr Fleur Francois.

“Ultimately, New Zealand saw the benefits of a united, less confusing national time. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long until other countries followed suit. To this day we continue to be held in high regard internationally for our role in the science and application of time.”

MSL is the official go-to organisation for the country’s most accurate time. It maintains this accuracy through three precious caesium atomic clocks (three for assurance!).These clocks are so accurate that they lose less than a second in 30,000 years. MSL’s time is constantly checked and communicated with New Zealand and the rest of the world, ensuring organisations that require extremely precise time measurements have the most accurate tools.

“Time is a complex science, an art even. We take it for granted because there’s always a trusted source. But a lot of work goes on in the background to keep things ticking,” Dr Francois says.

“It’s not just making sure we’re on time for things like airplane flights. It’s about keeping those airplanes safely in the air with precision down to the split millisecond – for scheduling, determining flight paths, speed calculations and constant rerouting.

“This 150th anniversary is a great opportunity to stop and appreciate the fine art behind time. It won’t be long before the global standards change in May next year for even more precise measurement and a whole new world of innovation opportunities.”

The public celebration of the 150th anniversary of New Zealand Standard Time is being held at the National Library in Wellington this evening, 5.45 – 7.30pm. It will include presentations by Gerard Morris on the history and Dr Bruce Warrington on the science of time.


Current MSL Time Lord Adam Dunford and the MSL Clocks. Photo courtesy of the Measurement Standards Laboratory of New Zealand (MSL).


Published on 1st November 2018