Timing trouble – The difficulties of introducing a 24-hour clock system

Hungarian version of the article: Nehezen szokták meg a budapestiek a 100 éve bevezetett 24 órás időszámítást

Written by: Péter Bukovszki

June 1, 2021 at 9:00 AM

Today, it is natural for a train to depart Nyugati Railway Station not at 1 pm, but at 13:00, but on 1 June 1921, this was a surprising novelty. The 24-hour clock system, introduced a hundred years ago, was unusual for the people of Budapest even years later. However, even clock faces were redesigned because of the change.

A new era began literally in Budapest after the night of 31 May 1921. On the first day of the summer, the 24-hour clock system was officially introduced instead of the previous 12-hour one. Under a decree issued by the Minister of Commerce Lajos Hegyeshalmy, in line with the international agreement, a new “continuous” timekeeping system was introduced in rail and shipping traffic, as well as in the post office, telegraph office, and telephone service. 

In addition to the railway, the 24-hour clock system also came into force in shipping traffic in 1921. The Nyugati (then Berlin) Square in 1931, to the right with the Modiano Clock (Source: Fortepan / No.: 32589)

What’s more, the summer schedule for the railroad started that day according to the new clock system, providing a double-perfect alibi for being late to work. One of the authors of the 24th issue of Színházi Élet in 1921 also makes fun of this in his story. According to this, two young men are waiting for the end of class at the gate of Szidi Rákosi's acting school at 28 Csengery Street, before one of them asks:

"What time is it?" 
- Quarter to eighteen!
Terrible! The poor young man was unaware of the twenty-four-clock system. He had no idea what quarter to eighteen was.”

If the young man had read that the Ministerial Decree even ordered the repainting of the dials of the clocks, as is apparent from the 19 May 1921 issue of the newspaper, Egyetértés, he would have known immediately what time it was: 

"The dials of the clocks in all offices and at stations and on ships, as well as the dials of the pocket watches of traffic, traction, train attendance and maintenance staff at railway companies and of the staff at stations and on ships of shipping companies, shall be gradually repainted in such a way that under the I-XII Roman numerals numbers 13 to 24 shall be written in red and the 24th hour shall be marked with the number 24/0 in accordance with the distinction indicated above.”

Under the 1921 Decree, the dials of clocks should also have been repainted according to the 24-hour clock system (Source: Érdekes Ujság, 6 March 1913; Nemesfémipari Közlöny, 19 July 1928)

Although the Friss Ujság of 1 June 1921 writes that new types of watches painted with a double dial had already appeared in downtown watch stores, and city watches have already been taken from their places to be repainted with the new numbers, the latter can be seen more as a poetic exaggeration as even in its 19 July 1928 issue, the Nemesfémipari Közlöny writes:

“Even if the dials of the pocket watches have largely remained the same, the public clocks are beginning to be altered. Indeed, the alteration is not radical, but it is something.”

Although the pace of repainting the dials has not accelerated since then (it would have been superfluous, since who can’t distinguish night from daytime?), the papers reported again and again in the 1920s and 1930s how difficult it was for the people to get used to the 24-hour clock system. For example, even in its 28 April 1937 issue, the Tolnai Világlapja writes that the new clock system was having a hard time being used in practical life, as we prefer to arrange a meeting at 4 pm rather than at 16:00 (this is no different today).

The corner of József Boulevard and Rákóczi Road, seen from the former National Theater, with a public clock with a  traditional dial in 1935 (Source: Fortepan / No.: 31846)

According to the paper, this prompted technician Otto Wolff of Magdeburg to invent a watch that automatically changes its dial every twelve hours. As the hands reach noon, the dial rotates and makes room for another dial numbered from 13 to 24. At midnight, at 24, the dial returns to its original position.

Due to the 24-hour clock system, new clock faces were designed even in 1937 (Source: Tolnai Világlapja, 28 April 1937)

The new clock system was not easy to get used to, but it has become natural for everyone. No one has to scratch their heads helplessly at Nyugati Station if the train arrives at 13:30 and not at half past 1 pm. At the same time, the dial of elegant watches still consists of 12 hours, and we arrange our meetings less often for 16:00 than for 4 pm. 

Cover photo: Clock on the Margaret Island in 1943 (Source: Fortepan / No: 9975)


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