Remembering Sandford Fleming and Standard Time: February 8: Snapshots in History

February 9, 2017 | John P.

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On February 8 and beyond, take a moment to remember the contributions and life of Sir Sandford Fleming (Born: January 7, 1827 at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland; Died: July 22, 1815 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada). Fleming is best known for his espousal of standard time (and the division of the world into local time zones) and for his engineering work on the development of railways in Canada, serving as Chief Engineer first of the Maritime-based Intercolonial Railway and later of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fleming understood the significance of the expansion of the railways with the proliferation of telegraph poles (for electricity and communication purposes) on land. However, as early as the late 1870s, Fleming was advocating the linking of the pan-Canadian telegraph service with an underwater cable spanning the Pacific Ocean to link different parts of the then-British Empire, namely Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The idea took time to bear fruit, owing to the opposition from the Atlantic cable lobby, but the colonial governments of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand indicated support for the laying of a Pacific cable. Consequently, work on an underwater cable from Vancouver, British Columbia to New Zealand and Australia was completed in 1902.

Read a PDF copy of Fleming’s work Terrestrial Time (1876) in which he advocated the promotion of universal standard time (subdivided into local time zones all around the world) by clicking here. (This work was written when he was Engineer-in-Chief of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).) On February 8, 1879 in Toronto, Sandford Fleming presented to members of the (Royal) Canadian Institute a paper entitled “A few words on the selection of a prime meridian to be common to all nations, in connection with time-reckoning”.  

The February 10, 1879 issue of The Globe newspaper, under the headline “Canadian Institute” on page 4, reported on the meeting and the reading of Fleming’s paper, noting that “(t)he scheme proposed by Mr. Fleming for obviating the confusion inseparable from such a mode of reckoning time is to take one absolute diurnal revolution of the earth in the unit of measurement, and let this unit be regarded alike by all nations…The starting point must be a meridian upon which it is noon it will be twelve o’clock, absolute time, to all the world...” (To view this article online, please log-in at the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card and PIN number.)

Ironically, Cleveland Abbe, chief meteorologist of the United States Weather Bureau, proposed a similar scheme around the same time in a paper entitled “Report on Standard Time”. Needless to say, Abbe, Fleming, and others who agreed with the idea worked towards the idea of standard time.

The International Meridian Conference of 1884 adopted a different interpretation of universal time from that espoused by Fleming, although Greenwich, England was generally agreed to as the location of the prime meridian for setting clocks and for determining longitude. However, Fleming’s prescient proposal of adopting 24 time zones (comprised of 15 degrees longitude each) came into acceptance by all of Earth’s major countries by 1929.

Sandford Fleming was an influential member of various professional institutions, including the Institution of Civil Engineers of Great Britain (member from 1871 onwards), the Royal Colonial Institute, the Canadian Institute, and the Royal Society of Canada (as a charter member in 1882 and served as president from 1888-1889). Fleming was made a Commander of the Order of St, Michael and St. George (CMG) in 1877 and elevated to Knight Commander by Queen Victoria in 1897, hence the right to use the term “Sir” before his name. Fleming also received honorary degrees from various universities including St. Andrew’s (1884), Columbia (1887), Toronto (1907), and Queen’s (1908) (where he had served as Chancellor following his retirement from the CPR in 1880).  Fleming was credited with designing Canada’s first postage stamp, namely the threepenny beaver, which was issued in 1851.


Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:


Fleming's army  the civil engineers who built Canada's Intercolonial Railway  biographies of masterminds, rogues, poseurs and luckless adventureres



The time period was the mid-1800s. The players were the developers, the contractors, the politicians, and the civil engineers (such as Sandford Fleming) who all played a role in the creation of the Intercolonial Railway (that later became part of the Canadian National Railways system in 1919). Railway technology was new at that time and its presence (or absence) could make (or break) a community.



Sir Sandford Fleming  his early diaries, 1845-1853



Follow these early primary sources from Sandford Fleming himself as he worked through unsuccessful attempts to work as a surveyor, developed important engineering and architectural contacts in Toronto through organizations such as the Mechanics Institute and the Canadian Institute, landed important jobs working on the Toronto Harbour and the Esplanade, followed by his breakthrough into railways in the early 1850s.


Time lord  the remarkable Canadian who missed his train, and changed the world


Time lord Sir Sandford Fleming and the creation of standard time



Follow Clark Blaise’s biography of Sandford Fleming that saw Fleming’s missing a scheduled train in Ireland (owing to time discrepancies) lead to his influential championing of synchronized and standardized time at the 1884 International Meridian Conference that revolutionized how society viewed time.



Chief engineer  life of a nation builder  Sandford Fleming   Chief engineer  life of a nation builder  Sandford Fleming

Book                                Book


Readers who enjoy a linear approach to the life and accomplishments of a famous person such as Sandford Fleming will appreciate Green’s biography of the CPR’s Chief Engineer.



Consider these digitized eResources from Toronto Public Library collections to open a window on the world in which Sandford Fleming lived and worked:


The Intercolonial a historical sketch of the inception, location, construction and completion of the lines of railway uniting the inland and Atlantic provinces of the Dominion. -- / Sandford Fleming, 1876. Access eBook online.

Opening of the Pictou railway, Nova Scotia; observations, correspondence, &c. submitted...May 31st, 1867 / Sir Sandford Fleming, 1867. eBook (PDF format).

Report on the Intercolonial railway exploratory survey, made under instructions from the Canadian government in the year 1864 [chart] / Sir Sandford Fleming, 1865. eMap accompanying eBook (PDF format).

Report on the Intercolonial railway exploratory survey, made under instructions from the Canadian government in the year 1864 / Sir Sandford Fleming, 1865. eBook (PDF format).

Memorial of the people of Red River to the British and Canadian governments, with remarks on the colonization of central British North America and the establishment of a great territorial road from Canada to British Columbia, submitted to the Canadian government by Sandford Fleming / Sandford Fleming, James Ross, and Citizens (Red River Settlement), 1863. eBook. (PDF format).

Topographical plan of the city of Toronto, in the province of Canada, from actual survey, by J Stoughton Dennis, Provin'l. land surveyor. / J. Stoughton Dennis and Sandford Fleming, 1851. eMap.