TCS Daily

Father Time

By Jay Currie - April 9, 2004 12:00 AM

As we adjust out internal clocks to Standard time, a process which takes several days and which, according to psychologist Stanley Coren, leads to an 8% increase in traffic accidents on the Monday after the clocks go forward, perhaps we can spare a moment for Sir Sandford Fleming, civil engineer and inventor of the idea of global time zones.

Beginning in the Scottish manufacturing town of Kirkcaldy in 1827, Sandford Fleming's life (beautifully detailed in Clarke Blaise's Time Lord) is a classic story of a brilliant, hard working, self invented man. He arrived in Canada in 1845 at eighteen with nothing more than a single silver sovereign, six years of formal schooling and an engineering apprenticeship.

Fleming began as a freelance surveyor. He would arrive in a small Ontario town, measure the roads and the bush with devoted precision and then strike accurate, artistic, maps of the town from his own lithography stones. He sold these maps to the settlers. It was a precarious existence but Fleming quickly made a living and a reputation.

Fleming was a hive of energy. He built railways and became the chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He designed and engraved Canada's first postage stamp. As Fleming surveyed he met leading citizens and convinced them Confederation would secure Canada's frontiers from American "manifest destiny" and her interests from British indifference. The thirteen none-too-sober days of the Charlottetown Conference -- the founding convention of Canada fueled on gin and gerrymandering -- might never have happened without Fleming's tireless groundwork. All of which fit what Fleming saw as the role of civil engineers: "It is the business of their life to make smooth the path on which others are to tread."

One day Fleming, on an Irish vacation, arrived at a country station to make a railway connection only to discover the train he was expecting to arrive at 5:35 PM was actually arriving at 5:35 AM. Trapped overnight in the Bandoran station, Fleming had the opportunity to seriously consider time.

In 1876 time was a mess. When a horse's pace had been a traveler's top speed, time could be set by the solar noon in each city and town. The fact a town a hundred miles to the West had a slightly different solar noon and thus a different "local time" was unimportant when getting there took a full day on horseback.

Railways, however, let people travel hundreds of miles in a single day. Railways ran on schedules. And those schedules, as Fleming discovered in Ireland, were a mare's nest of conflicting and mistaken times. Each railway company kept its own time, usually based on the solar noon in its head office city. A passenger making a connection had to use an elaborate conversion table to determine what time a B&O 10:00 AM was arriving relative to his Great Northern 11:00AM train. Missed trains were commonplace, timetable errors inevitable and more than a few trains collided because they were on the right track at the wrong time.

Forty years before Fleming missed his train, England, to her great benefit, had imposed "standard time" based on an imaginary line, a prime meridian, running through the Greenwich observatory. But it was standard only in England. The French "prime" meridian ran, naturally enough, through Paris -- nine minutes, twenty one seconds ahead of the English. Most of the nations of the world had their own "official" times based upon prime meridians running through their capital cities.

Fleming, perhaps as he waited for his train, decided to try to create worldwide official time. Fleming saw universal time as an engineering and surveying issue. He made solid scientific proposals for the creation of a twenty four hour clock and the world's division into twenty four zones of time. For the trains to run on time, time had to be standardized. Good Victorian that he was, Fleming saw time as a natural phenomena to be measured, fixed and calculated. Fleming saw nothing abstract about time; anyone with a good watch, properly set, could measure the hours' passage.

In 1884 the President of the United States invited the nations of the world to meet in Washington D.C. to fix the prime meridian. Sandford Fleming was attached to the British delegation. Here, the man who set the exact boundaries of little Ontario towns and plotted the route of the CPR was confronted with a quandary: world time was a political rather than scientific construction. The diplomats took a vote on the Prime Meridian: the Greenwich prime won. Time began in England.

The Washington Conference was a critical social and scientific juncture. It began the process in which facts about nature are subsumed to social forces. Victorian scientific certainties, the obsession with objective measurement, gave way to the imprecision of arbitrary, if efficient, starting points. Sandford Fleming's concrete world where observation refuted theory and experiment trumped speculation was overthrown; a diplomatically fixed Prime Meridian was a piece of social abstraction reached for reasons of efficiency not science.

The diplomats in Washington bridged the grand divide between the natural world of sundial time and the modern world of time zones and atomic clocks.

World time's diplomatic origin means the answer to even the simple question, "What time is it?", is a political rather than natural construction. It was settled by a vote in 1884 and was one of the first steps taken on the long road to globalization.

Jay Currie is a Vancouver writer whose writing is archived here.


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