Originally from Scotland, Fleming came to Canada in 1845 and later “joined the engineering staff of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, becoming Engineer-in-Chief of the successor Northern Railway in 1857.
In 1863 the Canadian government appointed him chief surveyor of the first portion of a proposed railway from Quebec City to Halifax and Saint John”1 which became the Intercolonial Railway.
After working on surveying and construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, he retired from the CPR in 1880 “but continued to do consultative railway work.”2
Sandford Fleming first became interested in the regulation of time in July 1876 when travelling in Ireland. Because of a misprint in a railway timetable where p.m. had been printed instead of a.m. he missed his train.3 He became a strong advocate for a 24-hour reckoning rather than dividing the day into two halves of 12 hours each, thus solving the problem that had caused him distress.
Although the 24-hour clock was adopted for certain purposes, for example, railway employee timetables, the system of dividing the day into ante-meridiem and post-meridiem was retained for railway passenger timetables.
With the advent of the railway and telegraph, local or sun-time (the transit of the sun across a meridian) by which people regulated their lives became an impediment. Between Halifax and Chicago, no less than seven standards of time were being used.4 In fact, each railway company used its own standard, usually based on its home city, to regulate the running of its trains.5
A uniform system was required. The matter came under serious consideration in 1869 when Charles F. Dowd, Principal of Temple Grove Ladies Seminary, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., addressed a committee of railway superintendents in New York. As result of this meeting, Dowd published “A System of National Time for Railroads” in 1870. He proposed to divide the United States into four standards time zones 15° of longitude (one hour) apart. Although he proposed the meridian through Washington, D.C. to be the initial one, he revised this in favour of the 75° longitude to bring it into accord with Greenwich, England (0°). This meant the other three zones would be centred on the 90th, 105th and 120th meridians. Clocks in one zone would show the same time and would differ from the adjacent zone by one hour.6
Dowd’s scheme was taken up and promoted principally by William F. Allen, Managing Editor of the Official Guide to the Railways and Secretary of the General Time Convention (General Secretary of the American Railway Association).7 The convention adopted “railway time” as the standard time scheme with the addition of a fifth zone known as Intercolonial (Atlantic) time (centred on the 60°th longitude).8 On November 18, 1883—the day of two noons—most of the railways in the United States and Canada adopted the system of standard time zones, thereby putting an end to the large number of inconvenient time standards then in use.9 Thus the discipline and tyranny of time came to regulate the lives of people.
Sandford Fleming acknowledged Dowd’s and Allen’s primary roles, though he was much more involved in having the system adopted on a world-wide basis.10 In October 1884, the International Meridian Conference was convened in Washington, D.C. Sandford Fleming actively participated as the delegate for Canada and Great Britain. Although he advocated a neutral prime meridian 180° from Greenwich with the meridians numbered from 0° to 360°, the Conference adopted Greenwich as the initial meridian with longitude being counted in two directions up to 180°, east being plus and west being minus of Greenwich.11
While Fleming was to see the adoption of 24 standard time zones for the world, his main desire was to have instituted a uniform time standard for the whole world (first suggested by Sir John Herschel in 1828) which he called Terrestrial, Cosmopolitan or Cosmic Time. Cosmic-Local time necessitated a specially designed watch with two dials that would indicate the Cosmopolitan time in letters and the local time in Roman numerals:12
While local time would be employed for all domestic and ordinary purposes, Cosmopolitan time would be used for all purposes non local; every telegraph, every steam line, indeed every communication on the face of the earth would be worked by the same standard. Every traveller having a good watch, would carry with him the precise time that he would find observed elsewhere.13
The cardinal principal of Cosmic Time is unity. By Cosmic Time all events whatsoever will be systematically arranged according to their proper chronological order. The calendar days of the world will begin as the one initial instant, AND CLOCKS WILL STRIKE THE SAME HOUR AT THE SAME MOMENT IN ALL LONGITUDES.14
While still responsible for the building of the Intercolonial Railway, Sandford Fleming was appointed to undertake the surveys for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1871.15 There followed exhaustive and exhausting surveys to determine the best route. Eight-hundred men in twenty-one divisions16 toiled, suffered, and surveyed 46,000 miles of line, of which 11,500 miles were laboriously measured.17 Fleming settled on the Yellowhead Pass, by which the railways would penetrate the Rocky Mountains, and from there by way of the North Thompson and Fraser rivers reach Burrard Inlet, a route finally accepted by the Federal government in July 1878.18 But not without opposition from a few of Fleming’s field officers; each had his preferred pass and route to the Pacific.19 In October 1880, a formal contract between the government and private syndicated headed by George Stephen, President of the Bank of Montreal, to acquire those portions of the Canadian Pacific Railway already built or under contract (710 miles) and to complete the rest of the main line was signed and ratified by Parliament in February 1881.20
Fleming’s route across the prairies and through the Yellowhead Pass was abandoned in favour of a more southerly and direct route, penetrating the Rockies by the previously unexamined Kicking Horse Pass. “In the early years of the twentieth century, the Canadian Northern Railway was built along the survey route advocated by Fleming.”21