Compiled by Bryan D. Cook, April 2015
International Standard Time
Prior to 1883, time of day in Canada and the U.S. was a local based on local solar time and maintained by local church or jeweler’s clocks. With the growth of continental railways and interconnections between the two nations, time needed to be standardized to accommodate the timetables. The Canadian civil and railway engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming, advocated the adoption in North America of a standard or mean time, with hourly variations set as time zones bounded by meridians. These were initially implemented by the large railways at noon on November 18, 1883. Fleming orchestrated the 1884 International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington, at which the system of international standard time - still in use today - was adopted for general use; though was many years before such time was actually used by the public-at-large.
Sanford Fleming (1827-1915) was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. He immigrated to Upper Canada (Peterborough) in 1845, working as a surveyor and draftsman and preparing early maps of Peterborough, Hamilton, Cobourg, and Toronto. In 1851, he designed Canada’s first postage stamp, the “Three Penny Beaver”, which publicized that distinctly Canadian emblem.
In 1849, he helped found the Canadian Institute. An early professional society of architects, surveyors, and engineers, it evolved into a broad-based scientific society which, beginning in 1852, published the Canadian Journal under his leadership.
In 1852, he embarked on a long and sometimes difficult career in the promotion, engineering and construction of inter-colonial and trans-continental railways. By 1868, the Government of the new Dominion of Canada appointed him engineer-in-chief of the Intercolonial (Quebec-Maritime) Railway, a position he held until 1876. A vigorous outdoorsman, he thoroughly enjoyed exploring and surveying alternative routes for the railways.
In 1869, he moved to Ottawa in where he could better lobby for railway design; replacing traditional timbered bridge construction with stone, iron and sound geotechnical practice. He bought the residence of George-Édouard Desbarats on Daly Street, which he later named “Winterholme”. This author once lived in the extension he built for his daughter, fronting on Besserer Street. Fleming also maintained a retreat in his beloved Halifax
So fierce was his lobby, particularly for the Pacific Railway, that he was fired in 1880 as a political liability. However, four years later, he was appointed a director of the CPR. He is, deservedly, the tall, broad-bearded character in the stove top hat photographed behind Sir Donald Smith at the driving of the last spike on 7 November 1885 at Craigellachie, B.C.
“The Last Spike” (courtesy LAC)
Side by side with steel rails went the “electric” telegraph poles, Fleming’s twin agencies of global civilization. His vision of a trans-Pacific cable from Vancouver to New Zealand and Australia was realized in 1902.
Fleming was a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada when it was formed in 1882 and its president in 1888–89. He was an active chairman of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) from 1872 to 1899, particularly involved in its standards committee on time. He was knighted in 1897.
Made Chancellor of Queen’s College at Kingston in 1879, Fleming campaigned successfully to shake its denominational Presbyterian yoke and become a secular university with a strong base in science and engineering before he died, still Chancellor, in Halifax in 1915.
He is buried in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery.
Wilfred Campbell’s PoemThe immense contribution of Fleming to the growth of Canada as a Nation makes even more valuable our recent discovery of a poem in his honor by William Wilfred Campbell (1860 –1918). It had been scrapbooked as newspaper cutting by Ottawa’s City Clerk and fellow poet, William Pittman Lett. Campbell is considered an important member of the “Confederation School”, the poetical equivalent of the “Group of Seven” painters. His homage to Fleming is, to my best knowledge, a new addition to his lifetime collection of verse.