A Brief History
On February 8, 1879, Scottish Canadian inventor and engineer Sandford Fleming proposed the adoption of Universal Standard Time at The Royal Canadian Institute. Fleming proposed that the world be divided into 24 time zones, each 15 degrees of longitude in breadth and sequentially one hour behind the preceding time zone. All land within each time zone would be set to the same time. Up until this time, clocks in every city and town had been set to local time based on each location’s position on the Earth, creating no standards of keeping time and mass confusion when scheduling trains, sending telegrams, and anything else relevant to what time it is.
Born in 1827 in Scotland, Fleming moved to Canada as an 18 year old. Learning the skills of a surveyor, engineer and inventor, Fleming conducted a large volume of work surveying and mapping Canada, and engineered major portions of the Canadian railway system. While only 22 years old he co-founded the Royal Canadian Institute and in 1882 he co-founded the Royal Society of Canada, both organizations dedicated to research and learning. This versatile “Renaissance Man” even designed the first Canadian postage stamp and served in the Canadian militia, reaching the rank of Captain.
Although Fleming’s proposal of Universal Standard Time was understood to be a great convenience, its use was not adopted at the 1884 International Meridian Conference held in Washington, DC, although a variation of it called Universal Time was. Apparently, the imposition of time zones was thought to intrude on localities used to setting their clocks at 12 noon when the sun was at it highest. At this conference the so called Prime Meridian, Longitude 180 degrees going through Greenwich, England, was used as a basis for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), a standard where anywhere in the world could use what time it was in Greenwich as a basis for standardizing schedules and the like. (In the military, GMT is referred to as “Zulu time” as each time zone is given a designation based on the NATO version of the alphabet.)
By 1929, nearly the entire world had accepted Fleming’s proposed time zone system, and by 1972 every major country was on board with time zones. Debate continued over the use of astronomical time (noon) versus civil time (midnight based) and the wording of Universal Time, Standard Time, Universal Standard Time, Greenwich Mean Time, Universal Time, Coordinated Universal Time (different variations called UTC, UT1, etc), Terrestrial Time, and International Atomic Time (based on an average of 400 atomic clocks and using GPS signals!). Meanwhile, time zones got some modification based on political divisions on Earth so that the lines do not rigidly follow the lines of longitude but approximate those lines.
Fleming went on to work at Queen’s University in Ontario and advocate for an underwater telegraph line to connect all parts of the British Empire, a proposal that was realized in 1902 with the completion of the All Red Line. Fleming, a Freemason, also founded business ventures and was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897. If this eclectic man was not versatile enough, he also served as vice-president of the Ottawa Horticultural Society (although we cannot imagine how he found time for this work!). Oh, he also founded the Alpine Club of Canada.
Fleming died at the age of 88 in Ottawa, leaving an incredible legacy of scientific, business, industrial, academic and social influence behind. Of course, such an accomplished man is remembered in many buildings, places, parks, schools and the like bearing his name, including the Sandford Fleming Award given by the Royal Canadian Institute for achievements in science. So pervasive is Fleming’s influence, that a mountain and islands are named for him, as is a town in Saskatchewan. Of course, he has appeared on Canadian postage stamps.
We hope you enjoyed your time with this article! Question for students (and subscribers): If you have any funny or interesting time related stories, please share them in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Blaise, Clark. Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time. First Vintage Books, 2000.