Time for a Change

Rail­ways and the clock

Kayak (Canada) - - CONTENTS - Il­lus­trated by Michelle Simp­son • Writ­ten by Allyson Gul­liver


Sand­ford Fleming breathed in the warm sum­mer air and smiled at the sound of twit­ter­ing birds in the trees around the train sta­tion. Ac­tu­ally, it was a lit­tle strange that things were so peace­ful. He pulled a watch from his waist­coat pocket and dou­ble-checked the sched­ule in the Ir­ish Rail­road Trav­ellers’ Guide. No mis­take about it — the train was due at 5:35 p.m. Per­haps no one else was trav­el­ling to Lon­don­derry to­day. Fleming sat down on a bench to en­joy the sun­shine. Maybe he would close his eyes just for a mo­ment. “Ex­cuse me sir,” a voice said po­litely. “Can I help you?” Fleming blinked in con­fu­sion at the uni­formed man, then jumped up. “Did I miss the 5:35 to Lon­don­derry?” he asked. Now it was the sta­tion­mas­ter’s turn to look con­fused. “There’s no train to Lon­don­derry this time of day, sir. Come in­side and we’ll sort this out.” “I may be get­ting on,” said Fleming tartly as they headed in­doors, “but I still know how to read a train sched­ule.” He handed the sta­tion­mas­ter the guide. Af­ter a mo­ment, the man shook his head. “Here’s the prob­lem — this sched­ule says 5:35 p.m., but the train to Lon­don­derry ac­tu­ally leaves at 5:35 a.m.” He pointed at the big chalkboard on the wall of the wait­ing room. Fleming’s face fell. “Blast and both­er­a­tion! I’ll miss my ferry to Eng­land.” He looked around the sim­ple wait­ing room. “And I guess I’m spend­ing the night here.” “I’m very sorry, sir,” the sta­tion­mas­ter said. “I’d in­vite you to stay the night with us, but with the new baby, no­body gets much sleep th­ese days. My name is James Boyle. I’ll send my son Tommy over with some­thing from the pub for your sup­per.” “That would be very kind of you and Tommy,” Fleming said. “I’ll be fine. But I’d like to have a word with who­ever’s re­spon­si­ble for that mis­print!” Fleming’s eyes lit up as an idea oc­curred to him. His mind whirring, he didn’t hear Boyle say good­bye. “What if we had a new way to talk about time?” he said to the empty sta­tion. “In fact, what if we had a new way to think about time?” He grabbed a rag, wiped off the ar­rival and de­par­ture times neatly writ­ten on the

chalkboard and quickly drew a rough map of the world, with lines run­ning from top to bot­tom. As evening fell and the sta­tion grew dark, Fleming drew, wrote, erased and started over. He was so lost in his work that he didn’t no­tice as the sta­tion door opened and a boy came in, car­ry­ing a cloth-cov­ered bas­ket. “Here’s your din­ner, sir,” the boy said. Fleming whirled around, his sur­prise at be­ing dis­turbed quickly turn­ing to a warm smile. “You must be Tommy,” he said. “I’m sorry to be so dis­tracted, but I’ve just had rather a big idea.” Tommy looked at the black­board, try­ing to make sense of Fleming’s work. “Does this have any­thing to do with that mis­take about the train?” “Well, that’s where it started,” Fleming said. “That mix-up made me re­al­ize that in­stead of count­ing the hours twice — six a.m. and six p.m. — we could have a 24-hour sys­tem so each time has its own num­ber.” See­ing the puz­zled look on Tommy’s face, Fleming went on. “In­stead of count­ing the hours from one to 12 and then start­ing over, we’d count from one to 24 each day.” Tommy still looked un­cer­tain. “You mean, we’d have a six o’clock and a . . . an 18 o’clock?” “I know it sounds strange,” Fleming ad­mit­ted, “but just think — no one would ever be un­sure of the time again. A 5:35 train could only leave in the morn­ing!” “Be­cause if it was around sup­per­time, it would be the 17:35, right?” Tommy said. “Ex­actly,” Fleming agreed. “But there’s a big­ger prob­lem than that.” He pulled a sand­wich and a slice of fruit­cake out of the bas­ket.

“Imag­ine we’re in Eng­land and this” — he held up one half of the sand­wich — “is Liver­pool, and this” — he held up the other half — “is Lon­don. Now, Liver­pool and Lon­don each have their own of­fi­cial time, and so does ev­ery town along the rail­way. So if you want to catch the train, do you use the time in Lon­don, Liver­pool or your town?” Tommy was in­ter­ested now. “But the trains all keep their own time, too. My dad says peo­ple who don’t know that get re­ally an­gry — they think the train is early or late, when re­ally it’s just on a dif­fer­ent time.” Fleming pointed the Lon­don sand­wich at Tommy. “Ex­actly! It’s ter­ri­bly con­fus­ing. Why, did you know that the city of Buf­falo in Amer­ica has three rail­ways, which means it has three of­fi­cial times? Ridicu­lous!” He turned to his chalkboard map. “But if we had zones where ev­ery town and city had the same time, we could all agree. No more rail ac­ci­dents and no more con­fu­sion.” Tommy grinned. “And no more missed trains to Lon­don­derry!”

Imag­ine what life would be like if the of­fi­cial time in your town or city was a few min­utes dif­fer­ent from the time just down the road. If your school was in another town, you’d be late or early ev­ery day. More se­ri­ously, trains and air­planes could smash into each other if they thought the way was clear at a cer­tain time.

That’s what it was like un­til 1884, when the world adopted Sand­ford Fleming’s idea for a sys­tem of 24 time zones go­ing all the way around the world. Each zone stretched from the North Pole to the South Pole. Ev­ery place in a zone would have the same time, which is why when it’s 2:00 in Win­nipeg, it’s also 2:00 in Chicago and Mex­ico City.

Air­lines, trains, the military and other or­ga­ni­za­tions use Fleming’s 24-hour method of count­ing time to pre­vent mis­un­der­stand­ings like the one that made him miss his train. In that sys­tem, the morn­ing hours are counted up to 12 as usual. Then it goes 13:00 and so on up to 24:00 when it starts over. (Th­ese times are pro­nounced “13-hun­dred,” not “13 o’clock.”) Fleming was born in Scot­land and moved to Canada in 1845 as a young man, start­ing out in Peter­bor­ough, Ont., and mov­ing to Hal­i­fax and then Ot­tawa. He helped build the In­ter­colo­nial Rail­way, and urged the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment to build a rail­way be­tween what are now On­tario and Man­i­toba. In 1871, he was hired as the chief en­gi­neer to work out a route for the new na­tional rail­way. Fleming, who was knighted in 1897, also de­signed Canada’s first stamp, the three- penny beaver, in 1851, and pushed for an un­der­sea com­mu­ni­ca­tion ca­ble to be laid all the way from Canada to Australia, which was com­pleted in 1902. Al­though he was stub­born, he was also fair. He en­sured that First Na­tions peo­ple who worked on the rail­way were paid the same wages as other work­ers, and he gave all em­ploy­ees Sun­days off.

Sir Sand­ford Fleming died in Hal­i­fax in 1915. He is buried in Ot­tawa’s Beech­wood Ceme­tery.

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