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Who Dreamed Up Our Concept of Time?

Viewing the turbulent contemporary world landscape, it seems improbable, almost impossible, to imagine an international conference being held where consensus was achieved, much less a consensus that remained intact for any appreciable period. And yet, that was the result of the Prime Meridian Conference convened in Washington, D.C. almost 120 years ago to determine a standard for world time.

The Prime Meridian Conference, officially called by President Chester Alan Arthur in October of 1884, ushered in world standard time. Imagine, representatives from 25 nations meeting in Washington, D.C. and returning home some three weeks later with an agreement, and an agreement which is still in use today.

That conference laid the groundwork, recognizing the need for a time standard in a world of increasing speed in both communication and travel, with its implications for commerce, and eventually the Standard Time Act of 1918 was enacted into law in the United States on March 19th, only eighty-five years ago.

Remarkable, standard time in the United States originally came into existence because of the railroads, and much of the country subsequently ran on railroad time, but local time was a different matter. Prior to the Prime Meridian Conference, the world was not divided into twenty-four time zones, with each day beginning at midnight on the Greenwich prime meridian; instead each town had its own local time.

The man, more than any other, who was the driving force responsible for making the Prime Meridian Conference a reality was Sir Sanford Fleming, born in Scotland in 1827 in the town of Kirkcaldy and coming to Canada in 1845 at the age of 18. Fleming went on to serve as the titular Chancellor of Queens University in Kingston, Ontario for thirty-five years; was responsible for designing and engraving the first Canadian postage stamp; and, though little remembered today, he was also the one who came up with the idea to create a unified standard for the world to tell time.

In his recent book, Time Lord: Sir Sanford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, Clark Blaise records the fascinating movement toward the adoption of world standard time by tracing Fleming's career, from his start as a land surveyor in Ontario and then on to civil engineering and the building of railroads, and finally as the one who recognized that the world should run according to a standardized 24 hour clock.

As Blaise states, "Of all the inventions of the Industrial Age, standard time has endured virtually unchanged." And, in recounting the story of Fleming and the adoption of standard time, Blaise deftly elaborates on the implications of 19th-century progress, both aesthetically and philosophically, as the Western world moved from the concept of the natural world, controlled by God or nature, to the modern world in which man's hand can be seen controlling, or at least trying to control, the elements.

The remarkable story of Fleming, and the Prime Meridian Conference, especially in terms of the historical conflict of various nations, is evidenced by the fact that when one glances at a watch, one can determine what time it is at that exact moment anywhere on the globe.

Blaise's words are almost prophetic when he writes, "Considering the impossibility of reaching universal consensus today on nearly any scientific or political protocol -- whether it's rain forest preservation, global warming, population control, landmine removal, genetic engineering, or nuclear testing -- the fact that implementing standard time for the world; was finally agreed to in civilized debate, did not cost a penny, nor the loss of a single life, speaks to a spirit of cooperation, and a quality of leadership, that we my never see again."

When most think of time today it's usually in the context of "What time is it?" or "There's not enough time to do everything." Almost everyone scurries around, looking ahead, never realizing that not too long ago, local time was the order of the day, and time in each locale across the United States was different by a minute every twelve miles. The vivid illustration Blaise uses is to imagine a long string with knots tied in it at equal intervals, with each knot representing a different town and the distance between each knot a total of 12 miles, with the result that each subsequent town, or knot, was one minute ahead of the previous one.

One only has to imagine New Year's Eve in let's say 1850 to get the idea. While revelers in Time's Square in Manhattan joyously cried Happy New Year!, across the Hudson River in Newark, it was still 11:59, and party goers in Boston had already been celebrating the new year for 12 minutes before the bell chimed for those waiting to greet the new year in New York City.

Just think of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, and then realizing that local time in Pennsylvania in November of 1863 was different from that in both Washington and Richmond. In fact, at mid-century there was a grand total of 144 official times in North America, which didn't create a problem for most so long as the speed of travel didn't carry one past too many knots in Blaise's illustrative string.

Blaise, however, notes that two cities that were a hundred miles apart were separated by an eight minute time difference, with folks still managing to get by with local time; that is, until the coming of the railroad. If the Oakland Bay Bridge had been constructed in the nineteenth century, Blaise observes, the Oakland side would have been thirty seconds ahead of the San Francisco end.

In Time Lord, the reader is introduced and exposed to the maddening reality in which a traveler arriving in a railroad station during the 1870s was trapped in a complicated maze of trying to determine the accurate time to make connections from one locale to another. Yes, there were clocks lined up along the station wall, but each reflected the time standard of each respective railway line. There was no Chicago or New York time, but rather, time standards were set by the Erie Lackawanna, the New York Central, and the Baltimore & Ohio.

So, as Blaise makes perfectly clear, life for the traveler at that time was an exercise in living a complex math word problem in which one was forced to live with the obsession of translating minutes, all deriving from different times every 12 miles, further compounded by what rail line and what destination from which a train originally departed.

One can get a headache trying to calculate the different times that the typical traveler was responsible for knowing. Blaise writes, "For example, if you were a Philadelphia businessman in the 1870s with an appointment to keep in Buffalo, transferring in Pittsburg (as it then was spelled), you would of course have to know the departure time in Philadelphia local time (just as you would today) -- unless the train had originated in Washington or New York, in which case it might depart according to the local time of those stations, a few minutes earlier or later than your local Philadelphia time." And Blaise adds, "It was your responsibility to know the difference. Thereafter, you entered a twilight zone of competing times."

Keeping track of time in the mid nineteenth century was similar to Abbott and Costello bantering back and forth about Who's on First? Philadelphia time was twenty minutes ahead of Pittsburgh, but if you wanted to catch a train in Pittsburgh to take you to Buffalo, and that train originated in Columbus, Ohio, well, the Columbus time would be twelve minutes earlier than local Pittsburgh time, or thirty-two minutes earlier than Philadelphia time, where the traveler started. So, as Blaise points out, "A train arriving in Pittsburgh from Philadelphia at five o'clock Philadelphia time would find that it was only 4:40 in Pittsburgh (which was irrelevant, unless you were leaving the station and staying in the city), but that the Columbus train would be arriving twelve minutes before that, at 4:28 Columbus time."

All things being equal, if our hypothetical traveler actually reached Buffalo without missing a train, that traveler would be confronted with Buffalo's three official times which were based, of course, on the three railroads that served that city. That wasn't so bad, though, compared to St. Louis, which observed six different official railroad times.

Fleming's epiphany came on a July day in 1876 when he arrived at the country station in Bandoran, Ireland to catch the 5:35 p.m. Londonberry train on the main Irish rail line between Londonberry and Sligo. But the train never arrived. Fleming checked his copy of the Irish Railroad Travelers' Guide and there was no mistake, the time of arrival clearly stated 5:35 p.m. The mystery was eventually solved, a simple misprint, the Londonberry train was scheduled to arrive at 5:35 a.m.

That missed train sparked Fleming to conclude that the logical solution to the problem would be a twenty-four hour clock; after all, he thought, was man really so limited that he couldn't count past twelve when it came to hours? This in turn prompted Fleming to consider the idea of time zones and their relationship to longitude. In Toronto, four months later, after his return from the train mishap in Bandoran, Fleming delivered his first paper on time, entitled "Uniform Non-Local Time (Terrestrial Time)," before the Canadian Institute.

"Time was in the air," as Blaise puts it, and based on the confusion and chaos, and its effect on business, not to mention safety, with railway accidents a common occurrence, railroads, astronomers, diplomats, and countries all moved toward that moment when standard time would be set for the world starting at Greenwich as the Prime Meridian.

Railroad standard time became a reality in the United States on Nov. 18, 1883, and within days, approximately 70 percent of schools, courts and local governments adopted railroad time as the official time standard. For the first time in history, Blaise writes, "Boston and Buffalo, Washington and New York, Atlanta and Columbus, San Francisco and Spokane, all shared the same hour and minute."

The Prime Meridian Conference was the inevitable next step, with the groundwork having been laid the year before at the Rome Conference in 1883. At the time, ships attempting to get their bearings at sea were confronted with a total of eleven national prime meridians -- Greenwich, Paris, Berlin, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Rio, Rome, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, and Tokyo.

The pressure was on at the Washington Conference to accept Greenwich as the prime meridian, but Fleming was worried about "national susceptibilities," by which he meant France unduly objecting to Greenwich because of its obvious connection to Great Britain. Greenwich was the logical choice, but the problem, according to Blaise, was how to make use of the Prime Meridian without involving England.

When delegates met at the Prime Meridian Conference, some 72 percent of commercial shipping recognized Greenwich, while 8 percent used Paris. Overly fearing "national susceptibilities," Fleming proposed a neutral prime in the Pacific, which led to Fleming and France becoming unexpected allies, as Blaise states, "the one from a desire to implement standard time without dissension; the other to sidetrack the debate as long as possible."

France, in an effort to block England and Greenwich as the accepted meridian, dropped its call for Paris as the prime meridian and supported Fleming's call for a neutral meridian. A vote was finally called for by a frustrated France and the idea of a neutral meridian was handily defeated by a vote of 21-3, and Greenwich won the day.

The importance of the Prime Meridian Conference is aptly described by Blaise, when he states that "The last year in human history with too many times, but no place for starting and ending them, was over." It remains to be seen in the coming weeks what man will choose to do with that uniform time.