Sandford Fleming, the engineer and inventor who changed our notion of time, turns 190 today.
Most well-known for proposing standardised world time zones, a Google Doodle has even paid tribute to him on his birthday.
Fleming’s proposals for dividing the world into different time zones and establishing a standard time led to the system we use today.
Born in 1827 in Scotland, Fleming emigrated with his brother to Canada at the age of 18, and began working as a surveyor and engineer.
Having worked a number of railway projects in the country, he rose to become Chief Engineer on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Fleming was living through a time of great change. Massive immigration to North America meant that not only were more people were moving, but thanks to steam engines, were doing it more quickly.
Technological advances also included communications, and it was easier to quickly pass messages across vast distances.
Fleming wrote in 1876: “Within a comparatively recent period, the human race has acquired a control over a power which already has, in a remarkable degree, changed the condition of human affairs.
“The application of steam to a locomotive by land and water has given enormous stimulus to progress throughout the world, and with the electric telegraph as auxiliary, has somewhat rudely shaken customs and habits which have been handed down to us by bygone centuries.
“We still cling, however, to the system of Chronometry inherited from a remote antiquity.”
Namely, people tended to use the location of the sun in the sky to tell the time.
Fleming’s work on the railways – on which passengers could arrive in towns using different times to the ones they had left a few hours previously – helped shape his realisation that an increasingly interconnected world needed to be synchronised.
In his work Terrestrial Time, Fleming used the hypothetical example of a traveller who arrived in Canada in the eastern province of Nova Scotia and set his watch to the local time. However, as he journeyed west through the country, his watch was increasingly inaccurate.
At this time of fast development, Fleming foresaw the need for different places to understand each other’s times, so transport and commerce could work effectively.
In 1879 in Canada, he proposed the ideas in Terrestrial Time: That the world should be divided into 24 equal time zones, beginning with the commonly used Greenwich Mean Time from Britain, all centred around a hypothetical clock.
Fleming’s ideas led to the International Prime Meridian Conference in 1884, at which 26 powerful governments – including the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the United States, Japan and the German Empire – agreed to adopt the principles of the system.
While his work on time zones remains Fleming’s legacy, he contributed extensively to Canada’s development through his engineering work on the railways. He also produced numerous maps and surveys and designed the country’s first postage stamp.
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