Sandford Fleming is near the top of the list when it comes to legendary Scottish-Canadians. The prolific surveyor, engineer and inventor was born in Scotland on January 7, 1827. He apprenticed as a surveyor in his hometown of Kirkcaldy before emigrating to North America with his brother at age 18.
Fleming’s initial voyage across the Atlantic was far from ideal. The waters were so rough during his trip that he wrote a farewell message and threw it overboard in a bottle. After surviving the voyage, he worked his way east across the continent before settling in Peterborough, Ontario.
Fleming began his career mapping the growing cities of Hamilton, Cobourg and Toronto. He was deeply committed to education and intellectual pursuits. In 1849, Fleming co-founded the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of science. Thirty years later he would make a famous presentation there regarding his ideas around standard time.
A man of many talents, Fleming designed the first postage stamp for the Province of Canada. He created the Three Penny Beaver in 1851 to represent the industrious spirit of his adopted homeland. The design broke new ground as the first stamp in the British Empire not to use an image of the monarch.
Fleming developed his engineering skills while working on a number of railway projects. Always on the lookout for new ways to build, he advocated for the construction of bridges out of iron and stone instead of wood. The change was initially resisted for cost reasons but the bridges’ durability and resistance to fire saw it installed as a best practice.
Fleming’s fiscal responsibility, work ethic and innovative thinking led him to key roles with the Intercolonial Railway in 1863. The rail line would link Canada and the Maritime colonies during a time of uncertainty. The American Civil War was creating security issues and making the movement of goods through traditional channels unreliable. Fleming organized surveys, approved construction contracts and even carried out some of the building himself. Members of the the Intercolonial Railway team can be seen in this photo from March 1870. A bearded Sandford Fleming sits on the far right of the photo, document is hand.
After completing work on the Intercolonial, Fleming created a plan for a transcontinental railway. He presented his ideas to government officials and was eventually offered key roles in the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1872, Fleming set off with a small party to survey the route that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. One of his companions, George Monro Grant, wrote an account of the trip called “Ocean to Ocean” which became a best-seller.
Fleming’s work on the Canadian Pacific Railway was critical in bringing British Columbia into the federation and opening the Canadian west to settlement. With his trademark broad beard and towering top hat, he was front and centre with the railway’s other key players when the last spike was driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia in 1885.
Fleming is perhaps most recognized as a leading proponent of worldwide standard time. His thinking was influenced by his cross-country surveys as he considered the challenges of scheduling long-distance train travel. Until that point, most cities and towns set their own time based on the position of the sun. The need for change was cemented by a personal experience in Ireland where confusion over schedules caused him to miss a connection and he was forced to spend a night in a train station. Fleming’s 190th birthday was celebrated in 2017 with a Google Doodle that included a hat tip to the the trains that inspired The Father of Standard Time.
Before standard time zones, most individual communities set their own clocks based on the position of the sun. This led to time variances between places that were relatively close to each other. In February 1879, Fleming presented his idea for the earth to be divided into 24 equal time zones. Each zone would measure 15 degrees of longitude and adjacent zones would typically differ by a whole hour. His ideas led to the International Prime Meridian Conference in 1884 where many of the world’s most powerful nations agreed to adopt the key elements of his system.
Fleming retired from surveying in 1880 and became Chancellor of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He held the post for 35 years as a champion of both science and secularization.
Fleming’s accomplishments became known around the world. It was great source of pride for many Canadians when he was knighted in 1897 by Queen Victoria for his service to the British Empire. His legacy lives on with multiple buildings, landmarks and Peterborough’s Fleming College bearing his name. In 1977, he was recognized with his own stamp featuring a train crossing one of his ‘controversial’ steel bridges. A fitting tribute to the brilliant nation builder.