Time Zones II: Sir Sandford Fleming and Standard Time

Time Zones II: Sir Sandford Fleming and Standard Time

Yom rishon, 19 Adar I, 5782.

The importance of knowing your Time Zones was exemplified in the Schedule of last year’s very successful BSHM/CSHPM/HOMSIGMAA Conference, which began: 

“Times are given as:

BST = British Summer Time, e.g. London (UTC+1), 

EDT = Eastern Daylight Time, e.g. Toronto (UTC-4), 

PDT = Pacific Daylight Time, e.g. Vancouver (UTC-7). 

For those of you in other time zones, some sample differences are: BRT, ART, e.g. Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro (BST-4, UTC-3), CEST = Central European Summer Time, e.g. Paris, Berlin (BST+1, UTC+2),

 EEST, AST, IDT, TRT, e.g. Greece, Finland, Turkey, Iraq (BST+2, UTC+3), CST = China Standard Time, e.g. Beijing (BST+7, UTC+8), AEST, e.g. Eastern Australia (BST+9, UTC+10), NZST, e.g. New Zealand (BST+11, UTC+12).” 

So, for pretty ordinary, pandemic era purposes you have to refer people to nine different Time Zones and in reference to both BST and UTC. Good thing we were all mathematicians!

In my previous post “Half an Hour Later in Newfoundland”, I told you that our speaker, for an online Zoom meeting, had to start at 7:30 IDT, in the morning, for a meeting hosted on a Friday, from Vancouver at 6:00pm PST. I didn’t mention that she delivered her excellent CSHPM Colloquium after having breakfast on the following Saturday, because of the International Dateline.

As I also said in the previous post, that without Standard Time Zones, “Nic would have had to calculate his local time as being 12 minutes earlier than PST and mine would have been 18 minutes earlier than EST. And anyone in the audience from the Université du Québec à Rimouski (UQÀR) would have had to add 26 minutes to EST. And so on and so forth throughout the world. In fact, without Fleming’s brilliant and herculean efforts we wouldn’t even have had any standard times to work this out against.

“He was certainly worthy of being dubbed Sir Sandford by Queen Victoria in 1897! By the way Victoria (B.C.) Time is 13 minutes earlier than Pacific Standard Time.”

So, let’s look at the Sir Sandford Fleming (1827-1915) record in Canadian history. For scholars outside of Canada, I suggest that we start with three of our standard references, two of which (in echt Canadian fashion) are English-French bilingual:

1) Dictionary of Canadian Biography / Dictionnnaire biographique du Canada, published jointly in both French and English by the University of Toronto Press and Les Presses de l’Université Laval in Quebec City. It’s also available online at http://www.biographi.ca . You can choose from the home page whether to continue in English or in French.

2) The Canadian Encyclopedia

English version.


French version.


3)The Canadian Centenary Series, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, published in 19 separately authored volumes from 1963 to 1988. I don’t know of any equivalent series in French.

So, what does this scholarly trio offer us about Fleming?

1)Dictionary of Canadian Biography / Dictionnnaire biographique du Canada:

The volumes of DCB/DBC are organised chronologically by the date of death of their subjects, so the article about “Fleming, Sir Sandford, surveyor, draftsman, engineer, office holder, and college chancellor”, is in Volume 14, 1911-1920. 

The Fleming article was by Mario Creet (1924-1994), of Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, where he worked both in both the Queen’s University Archives and the Department of History.

On basic biographical details Creet continues:

“b. 7 Jan. 1827 in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, son of Andrew Greig Fleming, a carpenter, and Elizabeth Arnot; brother of John Arnot Fleming*; m. 3 Jan. 1855 Ann Jane (Jean) Hall (d. 1888) in Peterborough, Upper Canada, and they had five sons and four daughters; d. 22 July 1915 in Halifax.”

According to Creet in the DCB, “Fleming’s travels had exposed him to the prevailing confusion in the measurement of time in both North America and Europe. The practice of keeping local time was universal, except in Britain, where the extensive development of railways had led to the adoption of a system of standard time. As the rail network developed in North America, the problems of scheduling and keeping track of trains multiplied, but attempts at reform failed because they were not comprehensive. 

“Fleming’s [1879 Standard Time] report, read initially before the Canadian Institute [in Toronto], was sent to [Canada’s] Governor-General Lord Lorne, who forwarded it to the Colonial Office with his full support.

Working through “The American Society of Civil Engineers … dominated by railwaymen”, Fleming became “chairman of its standing committee on time in 1881; …he carried out a survey of railwaymen and scientists about his proposals, using the offices of the society but paying the costs himself.”

“The railway managers decided to act at once since his data had demonstrated a clear consensus. On 18 Nov. 1883 the railways of North America adopted the system of one-hour time zones that remains in force today.” 

“[T]he need remained for global uniformity. The key players of the metrological society and the ASCE [got] Congress to call an international gathering in 1884 …, the core question: where the prime meridian would be. Grudgingly included in the British delegation, Fleming was the only delegate to distribute a position paper. 

“The conference eventually endorsed his main points, but each country was to make its own decision on adoption. A mean time based on an existing prime meridian through Greenwich, England, with hourly variations according to established time zones, became standard before the end of the century in most major countries.”

Creet’s bibliography identifies “five public collections of Fleming’s papers”, including the Kingston, Ontario’s, Queen’s University Archives, where Fleming was Chancellor from 1880 until his death. Creet also notes the list of Fleming’s publications in the first biography, by Lawrence Johnston Burpee in 1915: Sandford Fleming: empire builder. Lorne Green published another in 1993: Chief engineer: life of a nation-builder – Sandford Fleming.

Creet himself wrote about Fleming and Standard Time in “Sandford Fleming and universal time,” Scientia Canadensis (Thornhill, Ont.), 14 (1990), no.1–2: 66–89.  Quite a substantial article at 24 pp. It’s also available online at:


Scientia is the bilingual (English/French) journal devoted to the history of science and technology in Canada. It’s published by the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association / Association pour l’histoire de la science et de la technologie au Canada (CSTHA/AHSTC), https://cstha-ahstc.ca .

2) For a quick reference on things Canadian, I recommend The Canadian Encyclopedia.

I own a copy of the Year 2000 Edition, James H. Marsh, Editor-in-Chief, (1999), lxi +2573 pp. Front endpapers: Physiographic map of Canada; Back endpapers: Flags, Flowers, and Coats of Arms of the Dominion, Provinces and Territories.

The Fleming article, p.867c-868b is by T. D. Regehr, Professor of History, University of Saskatchewan, located in Saskatoon. For Regehr, Fleming “was Canada’s foremost railway surveyor and construction engineer of the 19th century and a distinguished inventor and scientist.”


On-line Fleming is in his own biographical article:


His Standard Time Zone legacy, especially as applied to Canada, is in another:


3)Another standard resource for Canadian history is The Canadian Centenary Series, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, published in 19 separately authored volumes from 1963 to 1988. Fleming appears in four of them:

J.M.S. Careless (1967) The Union of the Canadas, The growth of Canadian Institutions, 1841-1857. xii + (4pp.) Maps+256 pp., incl. 17 pp. Notes, 7 pp. Biblio., 9 pp. Index. Fleming on p.218.

W.L. Morton (1964) The Critical Years, The Union of British North America, 1857-1873. xii + 322 pp., incl. 26 pp. Notes, 10 pp. Biblio., 8 pp. Index. Fleming on p. 37, 131, 134, 272.

Peter B. Waite (1971) Canada 1874-1896, Arduous Destiny. xii +340 pp., incl. 37 pp. Notes, 12 pp. Biblio., 11 pp. Index. Fleming on p.16, 28-29, 59, 56 ff., 61, 104-105, 129-130.

Morris Zaslow (1971) The Opening of the Canadian North, 1807-1914. xii + (4pp.) Maps +240 pp., incl. 13 pp. Notes, 22 pp. Biblio., 18 pp. Index. Fleming on p. 27, 28, 47, 155.

For example, Careless notes (p. 218) that in the United Province of Canada, which lasted from 1841 until Confederation in 1867, “the chief contributions to engineering were made by men in practice, the canal and railway builders…. Most significant among them was Sandford Fleming, a Scottish civil engineer who served on the Northern Railway [from Toronto to Colingwood, Ontario, i.e. from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay] after 1845 and became its chief engineer in 1857 [i.e. 165 years ago] ….”

It’s worth noting that the United Province of Canada was formed from the amalgamation of Upper Canada and Lower Canada (today’s provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively) in the aftermath of the Rebellions of 1837-1838.

Fleming is such an important figure in Canadian history that he crops up in many other sources, including at least a score of them in my home library. But that’s another story!


My previous BSHM Blog Post:

“Time Zones I: ‘Half an Hour Later in Newfoundland’”. 


Fleming’s Birthplace: Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, Tourism Webpage.


Mario Creet, Biographical Summary, Queen’s University Archives.


Dictionnaire biographique du Canada/Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DBC/DCB)



The Canadian Centenary Series:

From the Toronto Public Library Catalogue-


From Wikipedia-