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1879: Sir Sanford Fleming delivers 'the world on time'

When Sir Sandford Fleming immigrated to Canada from Scotland, the boat trip took four weeks, and time change wasn't much of an issue. But when Fleming linked Canada by train as chief engineer of three different railroads, time became a serious problem. North America was a jumble of dozens of time zones, with different ones even for neighbouring cities. Having helped create the problem, Fleming came up with a solution.

Fleming's cure for time zone insanity was Standard Time, a neat division of the world into 24 fixed time zones. In this clip, author Allan Gould says Sir Sandford Fleming was a visionary who "looked at the globe, and saw it shrinking." He discusses Fleming's proposal for Standard Time (first proposed on this day in 1879), along with a legacy that ranges from creating the Yellowhead Pass in the Rockies to building Halifax's Memorial Tower and designing Canada's first stamp.
• Sandford Fleming (1827-1915) came to Quebec from Scotland in 1845, when he was 17. Canada was just beginning to develop its system of railways, and Fleming did surveying and engineering for several railways. When the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railways were taken over by the Northern Railway, Fleming was named chief engineer.
• In 1863, Fleming was appointed chief surveyor for a proposed rail link between Quebec City and Halifax. When this Intercolonial Railway was built, he became chief engineer.

• In the 1870s, Sandford Fleming was the engineer for the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway linking Montreal and Vancouver. His job included surveying the route across the prairies and through the Rocky Mountains. Though his suggested route through Edmonton and the Yellowhead Pass was rejected by the CPR (they opted for the Kicking Horse Pass instead) it was later used by the Canadian Northern Railway.

• In 1885, as a board member of the CPR, Fleming was front and centre when railroad baron Donald Smith drove in the "last spike" to complete the transcontinental railway at Craigellachie, B.C.
• In the 1800s, all times were set locally -- noon was whenever the sun was directly overhead. There were small (and mildly inconvenient) time differences between neighbouring cities: noon in Montreal was 12:12 p.m. in Kingston and 12:25 p.m. in Toronto.

• With the advent of rapid east-west travel by train, the time differences became a logistical nightmare. Many travellers carried multiple timepieces, labelled by city. For station masters, the ability to accurately schedule which train would be on which track at what time became a matter of safety as well as convenience.

• To address the issue, Sandford Fleming devised Universal Standard Time, a system of 24 global time zones. Each zone would span 15 degrees of longitude and would be one hour different from the neighbouring ones. His system met stiff resistance: scientists said it was too simple, religious leaders said it interfered with God's will, and some called him a communist for being too "internationalist."

• Fleming's proposal for Standard Time was first released in 1879. Governor General Lord Lorne Campbell endorsed it and forwarded it to the Colonial Office. A similar proposal was circulated by United States Weather Service chief Cleveland Abbe. Fleming and Abbe soon joined forces to lobby the international community.

• On Nov. 18, 1883, North American railways adopted the system of one-hour time zones. A version of it was accepted at an International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington the following year. By the end of the century it was in use around the world.
• A true renaissance man, Sandford Fleming had many interests. He designed Canada's first adhesive postage stamp, the "Three Penny Beaver" (featuring a beaver and costing three cents) issued in 1851.

• Sandford Fleming lobbied tirelessly for the construction of a transoceanic telegraph cable system that would connect all the British Empire. It was eventually built. The All Red Line (so named because on maps the British Empire was coloured red) was inaugurated on Oct. 31, 1902.

• Fleming was also a founder of the Royal Society of Canada, and founded the Royal Canadian Institute. In 1897 Queen Victoria made him a knight. He served as chancellor of Queen's University in Kingston for 35 years. In the 1960s a college near Peterborough, Ont., was named in his honour.

• Near the end of this clip, host Harry Brown speculates that there is no Canadian town named after Sir Sandford Fleming. There is one, in fact: Fleming, Sask. (just off the Trans-Canada highway near the Manitoba border), population 95.
Medium: Television
Program: Take 30
Broadcast Date: April 22, 1982
Guest(s): Allan Gould
Host: Harry Brown
Duration: 7:09

Last updated: March 20, 2013

Page consulted on April 2, 2014

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