Canada 2017

What might Canada have been like without Sandford Fleming?

You may know him as the father of Standard Time, but Sanford Fleming changed our times in so many other ways.

If it weren’t for Fleming, we might be setting our watches based on Washington, not Greenwich.

Sandford Fleming was instrumental in ushering in the era of Standard Time. This painting depicts his presentation of time zones. (Rex Woods/Deutsches Uhrenmuseum)

Welcome time travellers! Inspired by the missing journal pages in Murdoch Mysteries: Beyond Time, we're exploring what Canada might have been like without a few extraordinary citizens. 

You may know Sandford Fleming as both the chief engineer of Canada's transcontinental railway and the inventor of standard time. He was instrumental in pushing both projects forward.

But you probably don't know about another world-changing project which might never have been built without him: an underappreciated cable underneath the Pacific Ocean that helped bind Canadians to their Commonwealth cousins in New Zealand and Australia.

A connection to the world

In the late 1800s, telegraph lines buzzed across the British Empire. But Canada's only telegraph connection to Australia and New Zealand went the long way around, across all of Eurasia. The Eastern Extension Company used its monopoly on that route to squeeze its customers.

Sandford Fleming was a man who looked at life as a series of problems that could be understood and fixed. (Library and Archives Canada)

As workers pushed the Canadian Pacific Railway into its final stretch, Fleming advocated extending the railway's telegraph connection across the Pacific. Eastern Extension fought to keep their monopoly by arguing that the Pacific Ocean's earthquakes, coral, and undersea volcanoes would shatter and burn any Pacific line.

Still, Fleming successfully argued that low-cost communication through a state-owned Pacific cable was crucial to uniting the Queen's subjects. The ambivalent British government allowed Fleming to lead the project.

Fleming tried to convince the British to take over the uninhabited Necker Island 750 kilometres west of Honolulu to use as a cable junction. Tired of waiting for an answer, he planned a secret heist.

He sent a retired naval officer to travel through Honolulu to Necker Island to plant a Union Jack flag and claim the island for the British Empire. When his agent arrived in Honolulu though, he found out that Britain had already revealed his plot and ceded control of Necker Island to Hawaii.

Eventually the line was finished in October of 1902. As Fleming envisioned, it let Canadians send quicker and cheaper telegraph messages across the world, binding us more closely to Australia and New Zealand even today, long after the telegraph has become obsolete.

Though the British Empire that Fleming loved soon started fraying, the connections he tied proved essential to Australia and New Zealand. In the First World War, German ships severed both cables at separate times, but the extra connections kept them in contact with the rest of the world.

A historic problem solver

The Pacific cable is just one example of Fleming's ingenuity. This was a man who looked at life as a series of problems that could be understood and fixed — a gift he brought to his new life in Canada in 1845.

Fleming's general plans for the most commonly occurring structures. Architectural drawing from 1869. (Library and Archives Canada)

On his way from Scotland across the Atlantic at the age of 18, he wrote in his diary about a night when the ship was rolling so badly that chamber pots went flying. He and his brother had to "tye the pillows to the bed." An ordinary passenger might have just complained.

Young Sandford though, made a point of finding out just why the ship pitched so badly (apparently the ballast was too low).

When he arrived, Fleming worked his way up from surveying and mapping to bigger questions of Canada's future. Along the way, he illustrated Canada's first adhesive postage stamp and co-founded the Canadian Institute — a Toronto intellectual men's club.

He was a warm, relentless networker, and an unapologetic advocate for the British Empire.

Terrestrial globe with alphabet stuck to Meridians, used by Sandford Fleming. (Library and Archives Canada)

Think Elon Musk with a passion for the Queen and a dusty broom for a beard. His influence — buoyed by his knack for being in the right place at the right time — defies categorization.

For instance, Canada promised British Columbia a rail connection in exchange for joining Confederation, and Fleming was hired as chief engineer on the project. Although he was fired before its completion, he stands out among thousands of other engineers and labourers who ultimately got the thing built. And it's a good thing they did, because without it, B.C. might have been annexed by the U.S.

And in 1876, Fleming made the first public proposal for a global system of 24 time zones. Here too, he was boosted by happenstance.

By then, clocks were finally accurate enough to keep time reliably throughout the day. Charles Dowd proposed a system of standard railway time zones in 1869, and William Allen helped convince Canadian and American railway companies to adopt standard time zones in 1883. So when Fleming convinced world leaders to adopt a global standard time in 1884, he was planting in fertile ground.

It's possible without Fleming's specific proposal, we might be setting our clocks to Washington or Rome's Prime Meridian, instead of Greenwich.

Fleming, in short, is a man who changed our times.

Sir Sandford Fleming poses for a portrait in 1895. The multi-talented man died in 1915. (Library and Archives Canada)


Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is the Historian Laureate for the City of Edmonton and News Coordinator at CJSR 88.5 FM. He also produces a monthly history podcast called Let's Find Out where he asks Edmontonians for questions about local history, and then they find out the answers together.


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