Sir SandFord Fleming

Virtual Museum Canada

Time Tamed

In 1500 B.C. the Egyptians used the sundial to measure time…

Which, despite its great efficiency in following the sun, was not very practical in modern-day life.

Aerial view of the Pyramids under construction

Hey! Let me board! It’s not my fault it’s cloudy today.

Egyptian looking at the sundial.

Hey! Wait! It’s not 5 o’clock yet.

Egyptian seen from the back, standing on a wharf and signalling a ship leaving port. The sky is overcast.

There is a sign indicating “Departures” featuring a drawing of a sundial. The line is opposite the number 7.

Next departure: June 21, 1490 B.C.

Unfortunately for Sandford Fleming, it was 5:34 in the afternoon. The train never arrived, because it had already gone through at 5:34 in the morning.

Fleming, who has just missed his train, standing in the same position as the Egyptian.

It was July 1876. While waiting for the next train, he began to imagine a way to synchronize time all over the world.

Fleming sitting on a bench. Inscription: “July 1876”.

During that epoch, time was not what it is today. This may sound strange, but no two cities ran on the same time.

Transition between a rooster crowing at sunrise and another rooster crowing at a different time.  Later, a pastoral scene with roosters crowing one after the other.

Until 1840, there was no place on Earth where time was regulated. The first city to regulate time was London, in 1840. Henceforth, all England had to adjust to London time.

The earth with the inscription “1840”. Map of England with the inscription “London”.

Thereafter, France regulated time, adjusted to Paris time.

Map of France with the inscription “France”.

The sun slowly began to relinquish its place as the main means of telling time.

The sun and the eclipse with Fleming’s watch.

During this period, days began at noon and not midnight. The sun was used as the reference to indicate noon hour (the point at which the sun is highest in the sky).

A finger turning the dial from Noon to Midnight.

With the advent of the train, the sun was no longer an efficient method of measurement, because every 18 kilometres, time had to be adjusted by one minute.

Map of America with the inscription “18KM / 1 minute”.

This meant that in America, there were 144 official time zones.

Map of America with 144 time zones.

Imagine! If we had kept this system, you would have to adjust your watch 14 times between Quebec and Montreal!

Finger on the watch changing the time several times.

Today there are five time zones in Canada.

The same map with the 144 time zones replaced by 5 time zones.

We know that the earth completes one rotation every 24 hours. So, the planet must be divided into 24 regions of one hour each and a specific hour imposed on the regions, based on a fixed point.

Fleming, seen from the back, taking notes and imagining the earth with time zones. There is a circle on the sheet of paper with lines dividing the earth into 24 time zones.

For the next ten years, Fleming met with politicians, gave conferences all over the world and, above all, showed great determination in accomplishing a feat that was to become one of the key elements of world standardization. 

Fleming making a speech, shaking hands and the inscription “November 18, 1883”.

Telegraphic inscription: Standardized time system based on one-hour time zones.

At noon on November 18, 1883, the North American train network adopted a standardized time system based on one-hour time zones.

Continuation of the above with the Capital Building in Washington.

Europe, North America, South America and Asia.

Telegraphic inscription: International system of standard time.

Fleming played a determining role in the convocation of the International Prime Meridian Conference in Washington in 1884, attended by representatives from 25 countries in Europe, North America, South America and Asia. All embraced Fleming’s international system of Standard Time. So, although Fleming did not invent Standard Time, he was nonetheless responsible for its implementation around the world.

Capitol Building in Washington, Fleming’s speech, silhouettes of people seen from the back and handshakes.

On January 1st, 1885, the international system of time zones was inaugurated officially in part of the world. 


Greenwich time in England became the reference point for calculating time.

The globe with the title “Greenwich in England”.

We will never know if Fleming would have worked so hard if he hadn’t missed his train that night. One thing is certain, though. He made our lives much easier!

Return to Fleming sitting on the bench at the train station.

Hurry up! I’m going to miss my train!

A taxi in traffic with the inscription “Today”.


Producer: Luc Bienvenue

Realization and Scenario: Pierre Hamon

Drawings: Annie Gosselin

Animation: Annie Gosselin and Luc Bienvenue

French Narration: François Bienvenue

English Narration: Randall Spear

Sound Studio: Kanu

Music and Sound Effects: Kanu

Musicians: Kanu and André Lachance

Editing and Audio Mixing: Pierre Hamon

Language Review: Julie Berthold

Translation: Janet Brownlee

A Production

© 2006 A realization of Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum