In 1876, Canadian railway engineer Sandford Fleming missed a train.
Fleming had assumed the time printed in the railroad’s time booklet was in the afternoon, rather than in the morning, and found himself without a ride. Frustrated, he did what no one had thought of before, he set about reforming the entire world’s method of telling time. And eventually, as a result of the work of Fleming and others, the United States and Canada established five standardized North American time zones on this day in 1883.
As the chief engineer of Canada’s Pacific Railroad, Fleming was among the many who were concerned with fixing the irregular system of time zones. Before rail, individual towns and cities kept time based on local noon, or the highest position of the sun. But the development of continental rail systems led to tremendous confusion among engineers, stationmasters, conductors and passengers, says Carlene Stephens, curator at the American History Museum and author of On Time: How America Has Learned to Live by the Clock.
“Fleming’s first idea about reforming railroad time was not to divide areas into time zones, but to put the schedule on a 24-hour clock,” Stephens says. His radical plan created ‘Cosmic Time,” a single tool to be used by the entire world, based not off any one location, but rather a theoretical clock at the center of the earth.
Soon, Fleming altered his plan to include a provision for dividing the world into 24 local time zones, designated by alphabet letters, which could be used alongside ‘Cosmic Time.’ Each time zone would cover 15 degrees of longitude (1/24 of the planet), and would differ from the neighboring zone by one hour.
Around 1880, Fleming had an unusual watch—now held in the collections of the American History Museum—custom-made to reflect this plan. One side showed local time on a typical watch face, while the other showed ‘Cosmic Time’ on his 24-hour alphabetical clock.
Although Fleming was not the only proponent of adopting time zones all based off of one standard time—and his specific plan for ‘Cosmic Time’ was not ultimately adopted—he was crucial in building support for the movement, presenting papers at a series of international conferences. His role in the Canadian railway system helped push through the 1883 standardization for North America, and other countries soon followed suit.
“Once the national governments get on board, then the process becomes a diplomatic one,” Stephens says. “In 1884, over 20 countries of the world gather in Washington, D.C., and with lots of tugging and pulling, there is agreement by most of them.” Eventually, ‘Cosmic Time’ is replaced by Universal Time (UTC), and Greenwich, England is accepted as the zero degree meridian off of which UTC and all time zones are based.
Fleming’s legacy lives on at the bottom of many time zone maps. “To this day, if you look at certain maps that divide the world into time zones, the zones are assigned letters,” Stephens says. “The most enduring reference to that is ‘Zulu Time,’ for the zero meridian.”