Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Sir Sandford Fleming Devised Standard Time

Frustrated by the inaccuracies of schedules on the train lines, Sir Sandford Fleming devised a system of Standard Time. His method was adopted in Canada and world-wide

1892 Painting of Sir Sandford Fleming - John Wycliffe Lowes Forester, Library and Archives

Sir Sandford Fleming was a multifaceted man of brilliance and led a life of influence and success. A professional in many aspects, as noted on Dictionary of Canadian Biography, he wore a number of specialized hats:

  • Professional Civil engineer in railway construction
  • Construction engineer, promoting metal bridge structure rather than timber
  • Surveyor, mapmaker and outdoorsman, surveying several towns and rail lines
  • Advocate of telegraph and Undersea cable lines across the British Empire
  • Chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, 1879 to 1915
  • Advocate for education, helping to establish the School of Mining and Agriculture, and the School of Science
  • Director of several government and private projects
  • Inventor – he created an in-line skate prototype, designed the first postage stamp of Canada (the Three-Pence Beaver), and devised the Standard Time system by establishing the structure of universal time measurement around the world

The Canadian rail system completed, Fleming took the train from Halifax to Montreal. Comparing the clocks on arrival with his watch, he found no comparison. “Between Halifax and Toronto,” commented Hugh Maclean in his 1969 book, Man of Steel, “he finds the railways employing no less than five different standards of time.” Confusion did not end in Canada. The systems around the world were not in lines and in the United States, time-keeping was even more chaotic, making train schedules almost impossible. Sanford Fleming decided to do something about it.

Standard Time Zones proposal devised

Using Greenwich, England as the starting point, he divided the globe into zones, assigning times at one-hour intervals. The governments of the world were not ready and he couldn’t even get his ideas heard. With assistance from the Marquis of Lorne, Canada’s Governor General of the time and the Canadian Institute, an organization for the advancement of science that he helped to establish in 1849, Fleming’s proposal was printed and sent to nations around the world. His plan was met with approval.

The International Prime Meridian Conference was held in Washington, DC in October, 1884. After discussions and votes, Standard Time was set to begin on January 1, 1885 across the globe. Though there were some countries jealous over England being classed as the Prime Meridian, eventually all countries followed. There were some variances for local standards, as there are even yet. Ahead of the crowd, Canada had already instituted the program in 1883, a year before the conference.

Sandford Fleming appreciated Canada

But, Fleming wasn’t doing decades of work to the detriment of his personal life. Born on January 7, 1827 in Kirkaldy, Scotland, he immigrated to Canada as a teenager, making his way to Peterborough, Ontario in 1845. In 1855, Fleming married Jean Hall at age 28 and they had nine children, five boys and four girls. His affection for Canada was evident in his gracious words at age 88:

“It has been my great good fortune to have my lot cast in this goodly land, and to have been associated with its educational and material prosperity. Nobody can deprive me of the satisfaction I feel in having had the opportunity and the will to strive for the advancement of Canada and the good of the Empire.”

Among many other awards, Sandford Fleming was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1897. He died on July 22, 1915 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Canada was fortunate to have such a skilled, innovative man to guide national development in his beloved adopted country.

See a vignette clip Fleming’s devising Standard Time

Man of Steel: The Story of Sir Sandford Fleming, by Hugh Maclean, published by Ryerson Press, 1969.

This article was first published on in 2007.  Copyright Susanna McLeod

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