He Invented Standard Time

LYMAN B. JACKES December 1 1938

He Invented Standard Time

LYMAN B. JACKES December 1 1938

He Invented Standard Time


SO MANY momentous happenings have been packed into the last twelve months that one important anniversary—especially important to Canadians—seems to have been forgotten, or at least, neglected. This year, 1938, marks the Diamond Jubilee of the time-measurement system the world knows as Standard Time. And Standard Time was bom in Canada. The basic idea of time measurement by belts or meridians fifteen degrees apart in longitude, originated in the fertile brain of Sandford Fleming, a Scottish-Canadian engineer, who first demonstrated his theory to the world at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute held in Toronto during the early winter of 1878, sixty years ago.

That is Standard Time, as we know it today, almost universally accepted throughout the civilized world. Without it, or something similar to it, modem communications by express train, fast liners and airplanes could hardly operate conveniently, and radio would be thrown into utter confus-* ion. So familiar are we with the phrase, “Standard Time,” today, that it is difficult for recent generations to realize that no more than fifty-five years ago there was no such thing, since the Fleming plan was not officially adopted until five years after that famous Toronto gathering. Sir Sandford Fleming himself he was created C.M.G. by Queen Victoria in 1877 and raised to knighthood as K.C.M.G. in 1897 lived to see the Great War. 1 íe died in Halifax on July 22, 1915, in his eighty-eighth year.

Standard Time was born here sixty years ago. The old Canadian Institute Building in Toronto.

Dominidn Chief Engineer

C 1R Sandford Fleming was a railroad construction engineer, and a brilliant ^ one. Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, in 1827, he emigrated to Canada in 1845, when he was eighteen. He rose rapidly in his chosen profession, and in Confederation Year, 1867, at the age of forty, he was appointed to the important post of chief engineer for the Dominion Government, the first to hold that office.

In Europe and in America at that time each country measured its time from the moment of noon, when the sun was directly overhead in any given kxality. In the small European countries, largely self-contained, with travel limited and a journey ol more than a few hours an adventure seldom undertaken, the system worked well enough. But in North America confusing difficulties were encountered, and these increased as Canada and the United States opened up an entire continent. It was not jx>ssihle for the distant West to take its time from the more settled East.

Thus a situation developed that gave particular annoyance and inconvenience to railroad executives, who felt increasingly year by year the need for some method of fixing time on a basis sufficiently flexible to cover the entire continent.

One of the most important jobs Sandford Fleming tackled in his capacity of chief engineer, was the survey and construction of the Intercolonial Railway, connecting Halifax with Montreal, through all-Canadian territory. He had a great deal to do. as well, with the early construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and he surveyed a Canadian Pacific route across the Roc-kies. As a practical railroad man. he was greatly concerned over the difficulties inherent in the prevailing catch-as-catch-can time system.

Sandford Fleming was much in Toronto, where he maintained a drafting office, and he was constantly in the comfiany of engineers to whom the time difficulty was a bugbear.

Day after day, at luncheon and evening gatherings of engineering experts, he listened to endless discussions on the question of time variations, especially as they applied to railroad operations and telegraphic communication, until one day, wellauthenticated legend has it, he startled his associates with the calm assertion, that if he were so minded, he could settle the whole business in half an hour.

They thought he was joking. It was not until after he had repeated his bold claim several times in various public places that grave and authoritative directors of the Royal Canadian Institute interested themselves in his theories. An invitation to address a meeting of the Institute and present his plan followed, with the pretty plain inference that he must either make good his claims or withdraw them. In poker talk, the brash Mr. Sandford Fleming had to put up or shut up.

Governments Were Sceptical

THE challenge was accepted, a date set for the meeting; but so lightly were the Fleming theories regarded that the old minute books of the Canadian Institute sorrowfully record the fact that only forty persons thought it worth their while to attend.

Nevertheless, in front of this handful of sceptics, Sandford Fleming made good his boast. It took him more than the half hour he had granted himself—the records state that he spoke for an .hour and a half, but that may have been the fault of an especially critical audience—but, with the aid of a globe, charts, maps and diagrams, he proved his plan to be practical.

So impressed with Sandford Fleming’s theories were the men who attended that first meeting, that a motion was passed asking him to repeat his demonstrations on

the following Saturday evening. This time eighty persons turned out. After the usual vote of thanks had been passed and the applause had died down, one enthusiastic Fleming supporter jumped to his feet with a motion that the address be printed at the Institute’s expense and distributed to prominent citizens throughout Canada. A week or so later a few hundred copies of the pamphlet came from the printer and were duly mailed.

His Excellency the Marquis of Lome had arrived at Ottawa to take up his duties as Governor-General only a few weeks previously. A copy of the Fleming pamphlet was sent to him, drew a flatteringly prompt response. The Marquis asked permission to reprint the address. This of course was granted and copies were forwarded, under the Governor-General’s authority, to the head of every responsible Government in the world.

This brought about some entirely unexpected results. The British Government doesn’t seem to have been impressed with Sandford Fleming’s time theories. Nor did his bright ideas arouse any immediate enthusiasm in Washington, although they w'ere inspired, in part at least, by the time problems with which American railroads were struggling. The most powerful support came from Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Humbert I of Italy. In 1879 the Czar and the Italian King sent out joint invitations for a world time conference to be held in Rome in 1882, the Fleming time system to be the basis for discussion.

Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, and the conference, after meeting in Rome, adjourned, to convene again in Washington in 1883. The Washington conference adopted the Sandford Fleming plan with a few refinements, and in the next few years this method of standardizing time in all parts of the civilized world became law in almost every land. France held aloof for a considerable period, not having joined tininternational time group until 1919. after the War. Holland still remains outside. Everywhere else, the Fleming system of Standard Time reckoning is recognized and established.

An Invaluable System

AS IS the case with most really great 4 A. ¡f|(*as. Sand ford Fleming’s brilliant, theories are based on simple facts. His Toronto demonstrations began by pointing out that, for all practical purposes, the earth is circular in shape, and a circle is divided into 360 degrees. A day is separated into twenty-four hours, and twentyfour into three hundred and sixty gives fifteen for an answer.

From this jxunt the Toronto engineer went on to explain that, working from a prime meridian, twenty-four standard meridians, each fifteen degrees apart in longitude, would establish twenty-four Standard Time zones, each one hour apart. In each time zone the time adopted would

be uniform, and the time would change by one hour, passing from one meridian to the next. The Sand ford Fleming plan was as simple as that.

The plan finally adopted internationally varies slightly from the original conception. inasmuch as it takes the zero meridian passing through Greenwich, as the primemeridian. Sandford Fleming suggested the 180th meridian, which later was adopted as the international date line.

Europe uses three Standard Time zones; Greenwich, Mid-European, and EastEuropean. The five zones in North America are familiar to all of us as; Atlantic, Eastern. Central, Mountain, and Pacific standard time. From the prime meridian at Greenwich, each zone is respectively and in that order, four. five, six. seven and eight hours behind Greenwich time.

Railroad and airplane schedules, radio programs, telegraphic communications, in their present ordered schedules owe a great deal to those arguments that raged so fiercely around Sand ford Fleming’s head in Toronto, sixty years ago.