No one asked Sandford Fleming to reset the world’s clocks, but he couldn’t help himself.
When the Scottish-born engineer took on the project, freelance, he was already an éminence grise: designer of Canada’s first stamp, co-founder of the Royal Canadian Institute and surveyor of railways spanning the country.
Fleming might have spent his remaining years in cheerful correspondence with friends like John A. Macdonald and Andrew Carnegie, savouring the cigars and brandy that counted among the Presbyterian’s few vices.
But Fleming saw a problem – the sort of problem that was destined to bother him. As a frequent traveller and railway engineer, Fleming was preoccupied with timekeeping. And in the 1870s, virtually every city in North America kept its own time, causing vast confusion for anyone trying to get from place to place.
Fleming would prod the world to change that. In the process, he and his colleagues would make the world smaller and more manageable, and put the harness of science on something as vast and amorphous as our sense of time.
Fleming was hardly tilting at windmills. More than 200 years after the advent of reliable pendulum clocks, most of the world still used strict solar time, so that noon was whenever the sun was highest in the sky.
Of course, solar time varies from place to place, by an average of about four minutes per degree of longitude. Until the late 19th century, noon in Newark, N.J., came a minute later than it did in neighbouring New York City. As Clark Blaise wrote in Time Lord, his book-length study of Fleming and the standard time movement, “Every town was its own Greenwich.”
On the face of it, this wasn’t necessarily a problem. For centuries, using local time was convenient, since few people ventured far from home, and then only slowly and laboriously.
The spread of railways changed all that. Once people started travelling hundreds of kilometres in a single day, and switching trains midtrip, time differences between cities became hugely annoying. Toronto was 23 minutes behind Montreal, for example.
“If every city is setting their time by the noonday sun, train schedules are a nightmare,” said Ryan Marciniak, an astrophysics researcher at the Ontario Science Centre who helped organize an exhibition on innovation this year that featured Fleming’s work on standard time.
Matters were further complicated by the independent standards used by different rail lines. Since there was no established prime meridian, train companies tended to use the time of their headquarters as a baseline for timekeeping. If you were an American travelling with a Chicago-based railway between New York and Washington, you might have to do some clever triangulation to avoid missing your appointment.
Fleming recognized how impractical this was. But he also saw standard time as part of something bigger – something like the march of progress. Decades after the telegraph and steam-powered trains had shrunken the world, he wrote in the 1876 treatise “Terrestrial Time,” it still clung on to a system of timekeeping “inherited from a remote antiquity” and kept up despite “difficulties and inconveniences which are constantly met in every part of the world.”
These difficulties were not gauzy abstractions to Fleming. They had the cold, hard tangibility of a railway station bench. During a trip to Ireland in 1876, he wanted to take the 5:35 p.m. train from a place then called Bandoran to the port city of Londonderry (also known as Derry). But when 5:35 came and went, Fleming learned that the schedule was wrong: The train left at 5:35 a.m.
That night of discomfort brought home the folly of dividing the day into two 12-hour halves; Fleming’s early forays into standard time advocacy focused heavily on instituting a global 24-hour clock. But it was his proposal for 24 time zones, each representing 15 degrees of longitude and an hour of solar time, that would become his most lasting legacy.
When Fleming read “Terrestrial Time” to the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, the paper’s significance was recognized right away. According to Time Lord, the book by Mr. Blaise, Canada’s governor-general had the text translated in London and sent to the world’s top astronomers. From that point on, Fleming would be the global face of standard time, addressing the subject at conferences from Montreal to Venice.
By 1884, the issue had built up steam. American railroad time was standardized the year before, and British railways had used standard time since the 1840s, but the rest of the world continued to use a jumble of time-keeping standards, which made less and less sense as the world economy grew more knitted together.
That year, the U.S. government called a conference to fix a global prime meridian. Fleming was invited, naturally. But since Canada was then just a young Dominion, it didn’t have its own delegation, and Fleming was forced to attend as a representative of Great Britain.
Even so, he made a mark in Washington, intervening at a crucial point to urge the adoption of a prime meridian against diplomatic jockeying by some countries to slip out of the task. By the end of the proceedings, Greenwich would carry the day, against bitter French protests in favour of a neutral meridian.
“It was basically international agreement that we should all be singing from the same sheet,” said Rory McEvoy, curator of horology at the Greenwich Royal Observatory.
Fleming would be thwarted later in the conference when his recommendation for setting up time zones was ruled out of order, since it was outside the meeting’s narrow purview – but also, Mr. Blaise believes, because of his nationality.
“He was ignored – largely because he was Canadian,” the author said. “He didn’t have a nation behind him.”
When Fleming died in 1915, many of his ideas had fallen by the wayside, especially more eccentric ones such as using letters instead of numbers to tell time, so that G would be noon in Britain.
But by 1930, the overwhelming logic of time zones had prevailed, and most major countries were using them roughly in line with what Fleming envisioned. Standard time was not just a reality, but taken for granted.
The man who as an 18-year-old emigrant had carried a watch with a built-in sundial might have rested easy knowing that he had lived up to the extract from Poor Richard’s Almanack copied into his teenaged diary – lived up to it and held the world to it as well.
Don’t you love life?, the narrator of the pamphlet asks. “Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”Report Typo/Error