The Father of Standard Time Had Bigger Ideas

Sandford Fleming figured out time zones, and wanted us to have the same time everywhere.

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Sandford Fleming
Sandford Fleming.

Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Before the recent time change I proposed that it's time to dump daylight and standard time and go local time. The biggest problem with the idea is that one would have to be aware of two times: Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), formerly known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), for events that are not local, and local time where you are. Readers responded variously, from "the most ridiculous argument ever made" to "I am not sure that many people could handle the concept of having two times or two displays on their watch." I went back to do some additional research to bolster my arguments and found significant support from none other than Sandford Fleming, the father of Standard Time himself.

Fleming was not, in fact, the inventor of Railway Time; that was proposed a few years earlier, by Charles Dowd and was adopted in the USA in 1883. Fleming proposed an international scheme with Greenwich being the prime meridian. But he didn't stop there; he wanted everyone, everywhere, to use the same time for anything non-local. he wrote in Papers on "Time Reckoning" about the use of Cosmopolitan Time (alternatively called Cosmic Time):

"While local time would be employed for all domestic and ordinary purposes, Cosmopolitan time would be used for all purposes non local; every telegraph, every steam line, indeed every communication on the face of the earth would be worked by the same standard. Every traveller having a good watch, would carry with him the precise time that he would find observed elsewhere."
Time zones

Sanford Fleming

I would never miss Zoom calls from Vancouver if we did this because we would all be on the same time. Fleming also hated AM and PM, having missed a train in Ireland by getting them confused. (I have done the same, having shown up 12 hours early for a plane flight.) According to Mario Creet in his essay "Sandford Fleming and Universal Time," (PDF Here) Sandford spent "large sums in buying custom-made watches with 24-hour dials." So that there wouldn't be confusion between local and cosmopolitan time, he used numbers for the former and letters for the latter.

"The cardinal principal of Cosmic Time is unity. By Cosmic Time all events whatsoever will be systematically arranged according to their proper chronological order. The calendar days of the world will begin as the one initial instant, AND CLOCKS WILL STRIKE THE SAME HOUR AT THE SAME MOMENT IN ALL LONGITUDES."
Watch face fleming

Sanford Fleming

But keeping time also required keeping track of two different times, the local and the Cosmopolitan, so Fleming designed watches where one set the watch to Cosmopolitan Time (the letters) and the other ring rotated and could be set to local time (The roman numerals.) And of course, it was 24 hours. Never again would anyone mix up AM or PM, or ever wonder what time that Vancouver meeting started, since all knew that the Passive House Happy Hour started at M.

pocket watch design
Pocket Watch Design.

Sanford Fleming

Like the commenters to my post, many worried that managing two different times might be challenging. However, Fleming suggested that they would get over it.

"The intelligence of the people will not fail to discover, before long, that the adoption of correct principles of time-reckoning will in no way change or seriously affect the habits they have been accustomed to. People will get up and retire to bed, begin and end work, take breakfast and dinner in the same periods of the day as at present and our social habits and customs will remain without a change.
The one alteration will be in the notation of the hours, so as to secure uniformity in every longitude. It is to be expected that this change will at first create some bewilderment, and that it will be somewhat difficult to be understood by the masses. The causes for such a change to many will appear insufficient or fanciful. In a few years, however, this feeling must pass away and the advantages to be gained will become so manifest that I do not doubt Cosmic or Univeral Time will eventually commend itself to general favour and be adopted in all the affairs of life."
Russian Submarine Watch
Russian Submarine Watch.

CC via Etsy

Yes! It's time for Cosmopolitan time and a 24-hour clock. It could be like those Russian 24-Hour submarine watches with a rotating bezel as you get on diving watches, or it could be like my Apple Watch or any electronic watch that can show two times.

Sandford Fleming showing time zones
Sanford Fleming demonstrating time zones.

Canada Archives

Fleming proposed all this in October of 1884 and it never caught on, but I suspect that this pandemic has opened some eyes to the stupidity of our current system. I have been attending meetings in Vancouver and lectures in Berlin and am doing presentations in Portugal, and the time coordination problems have been a constant issue for me, and I do not believe I am alone. Many of us are cosmopolitan now, dipping in and out of events all over the world. Many are working a few time zones away from their offices. It may be 136 years too late, but we need Cosmopolitan Time now, more than ever.