This Week in History


Father of Standard Time

This story was initially published in 1999

On January 7, 1827, Sir Sanford Fleming was born in Kirkaldy, Scotland. Eighteen years later, he moved to Canada where he designed our first postage stamp, surveyed Canada's first cross-country railway, and became the 'Father of Standard Time'!

Unable to find work as an engineer, Fleming studied to become a surveyor. After passing his exams, he worked on the many railways being built in Ontario. When the government decided to build the Intercolonial Railway, connecting Québec City to Halifax, they asked Fleming to survey the route. Later, he was promoted to chief engineer.

The birth of Standard Time

The birth of Standard Time

While building the Intercolonial, Fleming was criticized for building bridges out of steel instead of wood. Many people believed that steel was not as strong as wood,and would collapse under the train. Fleming knew steel was just as strong and to prove it he invited the Board of Governors to lunch -- which he served under his steel bridge! To the horror of the Governors, a train rolled up while they were eating and began to drive back and forth above them. Fleming had made his point and was left to complete the railway.

Before finishing the Intercolonial, the government asked Fleming to begin surveying for the Canadian Pacific Railway. With so much left to do on the Intercolonial he declined. The government insisted and placed Fleming in charge of both railways! Eventually these two lines joined, connecting Canada from sea to sea.

Province of Canada's first stamp, designed by Fleming

Province of Canada's first stamp,
designed by Fleming

© Library and Archives Canada

Prior to 1881, towns used the sun's exact position to tell time. This meant that towns as close as Ottawa and Montréal were in different time zones. When fast moving trains allowed people to travel greater distances more often, things got VERY confusing! Fleming was determined to find a better way. He tested different methods before deciding to divide the world into 24 time zones, each one hour from its neighbouring zone. Today, all but the remotest corners of the earth follow Sir Sanford Fleming's Standard Time.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorates the contributions of Sir Sanford Fleming with a plaque in Ottawa, Ontario.

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