Sir Sandford Fleming

Sir Sandford Fleming

Time Lord (1827-1915)

Scotsmen? They’re so reliable you can set your watch by them. Literally.

Until the late 19th Century, clocks around the world were set according to local sunrise and sunset; the time of day, wherever you were in the world, was determined by where the sun was in the sky at any given moment.

On the American continent alone there were over 100 different standard times – so if, for example, it was noon in Toronto, it was 12.25 in Montreal.

In an age when horse-powered travel was the fastest means of transport, journeys relatively infrequent and distances to be travelled generally small, such disparities in local timekeeping, with variations of ten or fifteen minutes or even an hour or two, didn’t really matter too much.

The advent of long-distance rail travel changed all that. Or rather, Sandford Fleming did.

Fleming was the Scottish born Chief Engineer responsible for building the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway that joined the Canadian East coast to West. It was an engineering feat of truly epic proportions. Defying all obstacles in their path, Fleming and his team laid 3,700 miles of track through swamps, across empty prairies and through the steep foothills of the Canadian Rockies, battling temperatures as low as forty degrees below zero, snowslides and hurricanes.

As the great railway neared completion, however, Fleming realised that there was still one major obstacle to be overcome.

A railway system of this magnitude simply couldn’t work without a timetable that people could rely on. As things stood, no one could say exactly when a train might be due at a given station as there were simply too many different answers to the same question. It was a recipe for mass confusion.

British railways had overcome this problem by adopting the established Greenwich Mean Time, the "ground zero" of timekeeping long familiar to mariners. But a British traveller venturing abroad soon learned that clocks in Paris or Berlin, Cairo or Calcutta kept a local time totally unrelated to what he considered the "true" time of the day.

Fleming wasn’t about to let time stand in the way of his greatest ever achievement and decided to solve the problem once and for all.

He took out a map of the world and divided it into 24 different time zones of 15 degrees longitude each. Sounds easy now, doesn’t it? The best ideas usually do.

For five years, Fleming conducted a one-man crusade to persuade first the Canadian Government and then every other Government in the world to adopt these new time zones and set their clocks according to the new single standard.

Arrangements were finally agreed at an international conference held in Washington in 1882 and on the 17th November 1883, clocks and watches were synchronised according to one standard time for the first time in history.

It laid the essential foundation for the kind of global travel and communication we now take for granted. So next time you fly halfway around the world and the person meeting you at the other end is there exactly on time to meet you, or when you next phone a friend or relative thousands of miles away knowing precisely what time it is where they are, you can thank a Scotsman for it.

It seems somewhat ironic then that, for all that ingenuity, we still haven’t figured out how to make British trains run on time.

This article contributed by Rafael from the FirstFoot Writers site.

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