Even as late as the mid-19th century more than 25 locales (from Paris to Beijing) were in competition, while most Europeans still used a point in the Canary Islands favoured since the ancient Greeks. More was at stake than scientific squabbling: national pride and identity encouraged countries to locate the prime meridian in their territory. The situation could not remain so messy in an increasingly interconnected world so, in 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held. Greenwich emerged triumphant, though Berlin, Paris and Washington had come under serious consideration and, as the conference president recalled, debates had ‘not been free from difficulty’.
Withers manages to turn what might have been an obscure, rather technical topic into a fascinating account of international rivalry and a meditation on what the whole business of measuring the world around us can reveal about broader cultural patterns. Perhaps the campaign to establish a uniform prime meridian, to standardise and codify, was a tell-tale symptom of modernity. In any event, Greenwich’s supremacy took a while to catch on: other cities, notably Jerusalem, continued to be touted as alternatives and, for several decades, people around the globe stubbornly stuck to their local meridional guns regardless of what the boffins had decreed.