Invention of Standard Time | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Invention of Standard Time

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

"To choose time is to save time." - Francis Bacon

Knowing the time in different places is not an issue today, but long ago it was a complicated matter. Communities used their own solar time, which differed by one minute per 18 km of east-west separation between communities, the later time to the east. When 18 km was considered a long trip, time difference wasn't much of a problem. No one went that far in one go. The advent of railways made the many municipal times a major aggravation for travellers who often missed connections and had to wait hours for the next train. Safety was an issue too; it was most undesirable to have two trains using two time references going in opposite directions on the same tracks at the same time.

At noon on November 18, 1883, North American railway systems adopted a standardized system of keeping time that used hour-wide time zones. It took many years, but eventually people around the world began using the same timekeeping system.

And just who was the time lord responsible for developing the global system of standard time? The answer in your history books will vary depending upon your nationality. Canadians have heard of Sandford Fleming. The British know of Dr. William Hyde Wollaston or Abraham Follett Osler. American references credit Charles Dowd.

So, here's the scoop. England was the first to standardize time-sort of. The railways forced uniform time on the country; the national clock was based on London time. The first railway to adopt London time was the Great Western Railway in November 1840. By 1847 most railways used London time, which was not compulsory until 1880. Many communities fiercely resisted standardized time because they hated the idea of London regulating their days.

William Wollaston, a chemist and physicist best-known for reporting the dark lines in the solar spectrum, first thought of standardized time, but it was not implemented. Abraham Osler popularized the idea. Osler was the caretaker of the clock at the Philosophical Institute in Birmingham. Following the sun, Birmingham is about seven minutes earlier than London.

Osler made regular astronomical observations from the institute's roof and adjusted its clock; every Sunday morning the clock keepers of Birmingham's churches looked at the institute clock and adjusted their steeple clocks. Osler favored the new arrangement with Greenwich but wondered how to get Birmingham to accept it without riling half the population. He decided to make the seven-minute adjustment early one Sunday morning. The next day when people arrived at work, late according to clocks in businesses and factories, there was much cursing of timepieces and watch repair shops did a booming business. No one knew time had been manipulated. Osler kept his secret for many years.

The same problem with railways and time occurred across the Atlantic. North America had 144 official time zones. Charles Dowd, an educator from Madison, Conn., suggested standard meridians based on dividing the US into four vertical time zones, differing by one hour. Beginning in 1869, he plagued railway officials with his idea, lecturing, writing for the press and scientific societies, and preparing extensive railroad timetables. He proposed his idea to Congress in 1870 but it was not adopted.

Sir Sandford Fleming was Canada's foremost railway construction engineer, as well as an inventor and scientist. He developed the system of standard time, still in use today (courtesy NAC/C-14128).

Canada's Sir Sandford Fleming played a crucial role in developing a global system for setting time. He apparently became an advocate of time zones after spending an uncomfortable night in a railway station because of time confusion. Fleming, who came to Canada from Scotland in 1845, was Canada's foremost railway surveyor and construction engineer of the 19th-century.

Fleming instigated the initial efforts that led to the adoption of the time zones used by the railways in 1883 and the global time zones we use today. Fleming advocated dividing the world into 24 time zones, each equal to 15o of longitude and to one hour, beginning at the Greenwich Meridian (0o longitude). He was instrumental in convening the International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884. Representatives of 25 nations from Europe, North and South America and Asia attended; all adopted Fleming's system of international standard time. Fleming did not invent standardized time, but he is the father of international standard time.