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Sandford Fleming just wanted everyone to agree on what time it is

Fleming is the reason we have time zones.

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Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Sandford Fleming wanted to make the world a less chaotic place, and for everyone to agree on one thing: what time it was. He did it by convincing countries around the world to adopt Greenwich Mean Time as its universal standard and to split up into 24 time zones. Today he would have been 190 years old, and Google is marking the occasion with a Google Doodle in his honor.

Fleming understood technology was making the world more interconnected

In the 1870s, Fleming was the chief engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and he understood that the completion of the transcontinental railway in the United States, and burgeoning efforts to do the same in Canada, meant the world had become a smaller, more interconnected place.

It wasn’t just the railroad. The telegraph, too, was making it possible to communicate across the ocean in an instant. “The application of science to the means of locomotion and to the instantaneous transmission of thought and speech have gradually contracted space and annihilated distance,” Fleming wrote.

But as the world was becoming more connected, time was still set locally. Noon in a city or town was defined by the sun — which meant cities as close as New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore could all have different ideas about what time it was.

In a world where a train could leave one city and arrive in another within hours, that wouldn’t do. Fleming illustrated the havoc in his 1876 book Terrestrial Time (emphasis mine):

To illustrate the points of difficulty, let us first take the case of a traveller in North America.

He lands, let us say, at Halifax, in Nova Scotia, and starts on a railway journey through the eastern portions of Canada. His route is over the Intercolonial and Grand Trunk Lines. He stops at St. John, Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

At the beginning of the journey he sets his watch by Halifax time. As he reaches each place in succession, he finds a considerable variation in the clocks by which the trains are run, and he discovers that at no two places is the same time used.

Between Halifax and Toronto he finds the railways employing no less than five different standards of time. If the traveller remained at any one of the cities referred to he would be obliged to alter his watch in order to avoid much inconvenience, and, perhaps, not a few disappointments and annoyances to himself and others.

If, however, he should not alter his watch, he would discover, on reaching Toronto, that it was an hour and five minutes faster than the clocks and watches in that city.


Fleming foresaw that the problem was only going to get worse. “In a few years, scores of populous towns and cities will spring up in the now uninhabited territories between the two oceans,” he wrote. The country couldn’t function with dozens of cities all ticking to their own clocks.

He first formally proposed a universal time in Canada in 1879. That led to the International Meridian Conference in 1884 where the matter was settled: The world would be divided into 24 time zones, starting with the time in Greenwich, England, and adding one hour every 15 degrees of longitude.

(Greenwich was selected as the prime meridian because it was already in popular use. Also, if you traced it around the globe, the other side of it would land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The “dateline,” where one day turned into another, could be set there.)

An illustrations of time zones in Terrestrial Time.

Should time zones now be eliminated too?

The individual time zones meant that cities could still keep noon as more or less midday. But Fleming’s real dream was that everyone would set a watch by Universal Time.

“His main desire was to have instituted a uniform time standard for the whole world ... which he called Terrestrial, Cosmopolitan or Cosmic Time,” the Atlas of Alberta Railways explains. He imagined that people would wear watches with two dials “that would indicate the Cosmopolitan time in letters and the local time in Roman numerals.”

That didn’t catch on.

But even today there’s still a desire to realize Fleming’s dream, and get rid of the time zones completely. Here at Vox, Matt Yglesias has made the case to have everyone run on Universal Time:

If the whole world used a single GMT-based time, schedules would still vary. In general most people would sleep when it's dark out and work when it's light out. So at 23:00, most of London would be at home or in bed and most of Los Angeles would be at the office. But of course London's bartenders would probably be at work while some shift workers in LA would be grabbing a nap. The difference from today is that if you were putting together a London-LA conference call at 21:00 there'd be only one possible interpretation of the proposal. A flight that leaves New York at 14:00 and lands in Paris at 20:00 is a six-hour flight, with no need to keep track of time zones. If your appointment is in El Paso at 11:30, you don't need to remember that it's in a different time zone than the rest of Texas.

Not to mention a lot of the time zones are oddly drawn to avoid states, countries, and cities to avoiding having the confusion of having two time zones within their borders. Getting rid of all of them would simplify the map.

Fleming’s legacy lives on

Synchronization would become more important than Fleming could imagine in his wildest dreams. Today it’s essential for GPS satellites to keep in precise sync and be accurate to a degree that accounts for the time-warping properties of general relativity. And global stock markets couldn’t run if computers couldn’t agree on when a transaction occurred.

Sanford knew the world would only grow more interconnected with technology. And he knew that in this strange future, the more we could agree upon, the better.

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