Books

An idea whose time had come

Sandford Fleming invented standard time in response to the railway revolution

John Bemrose May 7 2001
Books

An idea whose time had come

Sandford Fleming invented standard time in response to the railway revolution

John Bemrose May 7 2001

An idea whose time had come

Books

Sandford Fleming invented standard time in response to the railway revolution

John Bemrose

The year was 1997, and Clark Blaise was a lot busier than he wanted to be. The Canadian author was the director of the international writing program at the University of Iowa—a job that would take him the equivalent of five times around the world that year as he travelled to fund-raising and literary events. He was also trying to write a memoir about his mother, while flying whenever he could to San Francisco to be with his wife, novelist Bharati Mukherjee. One day, reading over the manuscript of his memoir, the phrase “time zones” leapt out at him.

“It started almost flashing on the page, as if I had created some brilliant new word,” the 61-year-old author recalls in an interview. Researching the term, Blaise read eagerly about its 19th-century inventor, Canadian Sir Sandford Fleming. He was soon shopping around a proposal for a book on Fleming. Publishers in North America and Europe responded with instant enthusiasm. “I was able to sell the idea for more money than

anything Ed ever written to date,” Blaise notes. In fact, his healthy advance for the just-released Time Lord (Knopf, $34.95) allowed him to wind up his Iowa job and move to San Francisco.

Blaise s elegant little work has established itself as the surprise dark horse of the international publishing season. Already, Time Lord is number 300 at Amazon, com, which makes it one of the most sought-after books in the world. “Normally, when you crack a hundred thousand you feel good,” acknowledges Blaise. “My last book of short stories only ranks at about 1,800,000.” What makes Time Lord's success so astounding is its subject matter—a relatively obscure Canadian engineer about whom most Canadians know little. Time Lord gives the Scottish-born Fleming ( 1827-1915) his much-deserved due: he not only invented standard time, but he also played a vital role in developing the first round-the-world telegraph network. But Time Lord is also a dazzling meditation on social change. Best known for his fiction, Blaise shows how new technologies (in Flemings day, the railway and telegraph, and in our own, the computer) have shaped our perceptions of time, plunging us into a temporal crisis from which we have never entirely emerged.

Even if Fleming had never invented standard time, he would have been important to Canadians. Trained in Scodand as a surveyor, he arrived in Peterborough, Ont., in 1845, at the age of 18, and quickly established himself as a force for progress. At 23, he co-founded the Canadian Institute—the forerunner of the Royal Society of Canada. Fie took the first soundings of Toronto’s harbour and by 25 had designed the first Canadian postage stamp, the threepenny beaver. Later, he became a tireless promoter of the cause of Confederation, as well as chief engineer— he was largely self-taught—on the Canadian Pacific Railway that linked Eastern Canada with the West Coast. His health suffering under the stress of the CPR project—he was eventually fired for its cost overruns and delays—Fleming took a trip back to Britain in 1876. On an Irish rail platform, where he missed a train because of a misprint in a schedule, he began to dream of a foolproof system of universal time.

Before the adoption of standard time, every town, city and railway kept its own time. Philadelphia was a few minutes behind New York City, and Hamilton was behind Toronto. Although the island of Britain had standardized time from 1852, for decades afterward anyone visiting a rail station in the rest of the world was confronted with a series of clocks. Each was set to a different time, reflecting the standard kept by different rail companies (which tended to adhere to the time kept at their headquarters). Scheduling problems were daunting and accidents common occurrences. “The world had become gridlocked in a temporal nightmare,” says Blaise.

Among the many important thinkers about time, Fleming, the colonial, was the one who thought most deeply, and lobbied most widely for a worldwide system of timekeeping. He wanted to establish two kinds of time. One would divide the world into 24 east-west zones, each with its own

local time. But he also wanted a universal time, a kind of world-day that would establish the same 24-hour clock for all people and nations at once. Both systems would depend on establishing an international prime meridian—a mutually agreed-upon line of longitude from which the new universal day would be measured. Fleming favoured a politically neutral line through the Pacific, while Britain and the United States wanted the longitude line that ran through the observatory at Green-

‘I think if we adopted some form of Fleming’s universal time, we might live more congenially with our new technologies’

wich, England, already the basis for the maritime charts used by most of the world.

At the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, Fleming’s push for a Pacific time line lost out to Greenwich. Nor did he win approval for his universal day. But Blaise believes that this latter idea was visionary, and may be widely used yet. The catalyst will be the computer. People now have instantaneous contact with one another all over the globe, at all hours. “There are many people now who have to live in several time zones at once,” Blaise observes. “While they’re picking up their kids at day care at 4:10, they’re trying to keep track of the times in Tokyo or Bombay. This creates tremendous stress. We’re still living by a clock that was created in a steam age to reg-

ulate trains and human labour. I think if we adopted some form of Fleming’s universal time, we might live more congenially with our new technologies.”

In Time Lord, Blaise distinguishes between what he calls “natural time”—the flow of seasons, of light and dark—and the structures of minutely organized time that society erects, creating, with the help of the latest technology, an illusion of control. In our own time, this illusion is cultivated with great ferocity: Blaise summons the example of the individual who can hardly bring himself to separate from phone, pager or computer. “To such a person, just having to turn their pager off in a theatre is painful. He’s not just turning off his moneymaking side, but also his authenticating side. ‘How do I know who I am if I’m not getting calls?’ ”

As Time Lord suggests, time ultimately cannot be controlled or even understood. Natural time, the vehicle of such mysterious processes as mortality and memory, is still at work in us. Some of Blaise’s most compelling passages show how great novelists such as Woolf, Conrad, Faulkner and Hemingway were in profound rebellion against the hyper-rational world of clock time. Their work reveals what Blaise calls “the smooth, slippery face of time,” where no human can get solid purchase for long.

A delicately built man with a spark in his grey-blue eyes, Blaise numbers himself among the growing body of “temporal millionaires,” a phrase he borrows from writer Robert Levine. These are people who no longer live by the demands of conventionally organized time: they work at home on their computers and are likely to be seen walking their dogs or going to movies at odd hours. Like them, Blaise experiences a sense of freedom around time. Abjuring schedules, he’s likely to be up at all hours exchanging e-mails with his many friends around the world or writing down ideas in his ever-present notebook. “I lead my life very extemporaneously,” he says, “and I try to expand my minutes by doing many things.” In other words, he noodles along, paying attention to the clock without being ruled by it—a time lord in his own 21st-century way. CD