Happy Birthday Sir Sanford Fleming, the inventor of Standard Time

Happy Birthday Sir Sanford Fleming, the inventor of Standard Time.

Sir Sanford Fleming (January 7, 1827 – July 22, 1915) was Canada’s foremost railway surveyor and construction engineer of the 19th century and a distinguished inventor and scientist.

CPR steam engine

Sir Sanford Fleming played a crucial role in developing a global system for setting time. Fleming advocated the adoption of a standard or mean time and hourly variations from that according to established time zones. He was instrumental in convening the 1884 International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, at which the system of international standard time – still in use today – was adopted.

Pinwheel regulator designed for railroads, NAWCC museum

Many regions of Canada and the US observed local time and when coast to coast rail systems were constructed a unified time system was identified as a necessity. In the United States, the problems were severe, with one table showing over 100 local times in one region varying by more than 3 hours.

The first proposal for a consistent treatment of time worldwide was a memoir entitled “Terrestrial Time” by Fleming. Fleming was, at the time, the chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, presented a proposal to the Canadian Institute in 1876. He produced modified proposals using the Greenwich meridian. Fleming’s two papers were considered so important that in June 1879 the British Government forwarded copies to eighteen foreign countries and to various scientific bodies in England.

Seth Thomas Regulator #2, a common railway clock

On 11 October 1883, two years after the invention of the toilet paper roll,

S. Wheeler and the toilet paper roll

a convention of railroad executives met in Chicago and agreed to the implementation of five time zones in North America, using as a basis, Greenwich Mean Time. Standard time was introduced at noon on 18 November 1883 across the nation though it was not legally established until 1918.

As we celebrate Sir Sanford Fleming’s birthday it is important to reflect on his contribution to the construct of organizing time; something all of us take for granted in our daily lives.


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