National Treasure #11: Sir Sandford Fleming

Knowing the time in different places is not an issue today,
but long ago it was a complicated matter.

Well, I admit that I still find it difficult to know the time in different places, and shudder to think how I might have fared “long ago” when it was a “complicated matter.”

In a charmingly nonpartisan way, The Canadian Encyclopedia indicates that who we credit for the development of standard time depends on our nationality. It turns out that Americans and Brits played a role – but so did Sir Sandford Fleming, a Canadian!

Fleming also played a key role (Ed’s note: Elsewhere the Encyclopedia says it was a “crucial role.” Just sayin’.) in the development of a satisfactory worldwide system of keeping time. The railway had made obsolete the old system where every major centre set its clocks according to local astronomical conditions. Fleming advocated the adoption of a standard or mean time and hourly variations from that according to established time zones. He was instrumental (Ed’s note: Key, critical, instrumental – it all sounds pretty important to me.) in convening an International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884 at which the system of international standard time – still in use today – was adopted.

Fleming was also what we might, today, call a polymath – a man of many talents:

  • He was our foremost railway construction engineer, back when we were, you know, constructing railways, and that appellation meant something.
  • He also designed our first postage stamp, the three-pence beaver, back when three cents was enough to send a letter.

OK, at least two completely unrelated talents. Anyway, that whole time zone thing is enough for me.

This is one of a series on Canadian national treasures – my sesquicentennial project. They reflect people (living and dead), places and things that I think are worth celebrating about our country, and are done in no order of precedence.


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