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"The Father of Standard Time": Sanford Fleming 



The Sunday of Two Noons

Chaos within the railroad system spurred the establishment of standard time in 1883.

Jenny- Fall 2003

Two conductors synchronized their watches to railroad time in 1883. 

  Sanford Fleming, chief engineer of Canadian Pacific Railway, stood alone at a railway station, waiting for his train to arrive at 5:35 P.M. Time passed and there was no train. He verified the time in his schedule book. Flustered, Fleming asked for the assistance of an employee, who told him there had been a misprint in the book. He was going to have to spend 16 hours waiting in the station. Most people would have cursed and moved on, but Fleming saw the mistake as more than just a misprint. It was just one example of the inefficiency in the world and timetables of the era. Fleming seized the opportunity as a way to relieve the frustrations of many, through a vision called standard time (Blaise, 2000).

  Before the increase in long distance railroad transportation and telegraphic communication, there was no need for standard time. With the transportation prior to the industrial revolution, people couldn’t travel far in one day, and therefore weren’t affected by the changes in the sun’s position (American Encyclopedia #26, 1981).  

 Time was kept by “sun time”, which defined noon as the “moment when the sun was directly overhead and cast no shadow.” (Time…) This form of telling time became complicated however, due to the fact that the “earth’s rotation changed the sun’s position every12.5 miles along the east-west latitude.”(Time…).

  Essentially, the time of day varied from town to town, and sometimes even within a town. In Stewart Holbrook’s (1947), The Story of American Railroads, he explained this concept: “When solar time is noon in Chicago, it was 12:31 Pittsburgh...[and it was] 11:50 in St. Louis.” According to “sun time”, there was more than a minute’s difference in time from the east to the west side of Chicago. (Fremo,8)

Sign recognizing the origin of standard time and Fleming.

Across America, the number of local times quickly grew out of control. The Chicago Tribune reported 38 local times in Wisconsin and 27 in Indiana alone (Fremo, 11). 

 “Sun time” was on the verge of collapse, poised between remaining a successful time keeping system and falling into utter turmoil. By the mid-1800’s, the rapid growth of railroad travel had broken this delicate balance of “sun time’s” existence.

   Individual railroad lines adopted their own “times” based either upon major towns they ran through, or by the rail line’s home city (Fremo, 7). For example, the B&O railroad “used Baltimore time for trains running out of Baltimore, Columbus time for trains in Ohio, [and] Vincennes time for trains west of Cincinnati.”(Holbrook, 1947, p. 355).

  With no one running on the same time, chaos was inevitable. It was not uncommon for travelers like Sanford Fleming to miss trains due to the confusions in times (Holbrook, 1947). Other travelers, such as August Mencken, found the numerous times overwhelming. “A great source of inconvenience in traveling is what appears to be a foolish arrangement of clocks…In a 40 hours’ ride now commenced, we had three times-Washington, Vincennes, and St. Louis...” (Solomon, 2001, p. 70). Railroad collisions were also prevalent because trains ran on different schedules and were unaware of other trains. (Reed, 5) As the New York Herald simply put it “The confusion of time standards (referring to no time zones) was the source of unceasing annoyance and trouble.” (Fremo, 17).

Two officials in Brooklyn N.Y. set a clock to standard time.

The era of efficiency and standardization was sweeping across the U.S., but the railroad systems were being left behind (Gordon, 4). Sanford Fleming realized the inefficiency of the railroad’s practice of “sun time”, through a simple thought: Multiplying the amount of time he wasted due to missing his train, by the number of people who experienced similar problems, resulted in a huge problem. (Blaise, 2000)

     Prof. Charles Dowd, principal of the Temple Grove Seminary for Young Ladies, also recognized the need for standard time: “The traveler’s watch was to him but a delusion; clocks at stations …baffled all intelligent interpretation.”(Blaise, 2000) He not only devised a time system, but also used pamphlets and letters to encourage railroad executives to create time zones. (Holbrook, 1947)

   Meanwhile, in St. Louis (1874), railroad superintendents met to “arrange summer passenger schedules”, and formed the General Time Convention. (Holbrook, 1947) William Allen, who wrote for a railroad newsletter, was elected secretary of the convention in 1876. (Holbrook, 1947,p. 356) He followed in Dowd’s footsteps, proposing the implementation of five time zones: Intercolonial, Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. (Holbrook, 1947)

  In Chicago on October 11, 1883, at the Grand Pacific hotel, the General Time Convention finally adopted Allen’s proposal. (Corliss, 1952, p. 1) Then, on Sunday November 18, 1883,later known as the “Sunday of Two Noons”, standard time was instigated across the U.S. (Time…). 

  One Chicago reporter wrote: “The feat was successfully accomplished, and a general murmur of satisfaction ran through the [West Side Union Depot].” (Holbrook, 1947,p. 359).

  However, not everyone was satisfied. Several people, including Mayor Dogberry of Maine, believed standard time was “unconstitutional, being an attempt to change the immutable laws of God Almighty…” (Holbrook, 1947,p. 356). Others disliked the concept of following a time standard that was set solely by the railroads. An editor for the Indianapolis Sentinel wrote: “The planets must, in the future, make their circuits by such timetables as railroad magnates arrange…people must marry by railroad time, and die by railroad time.” (Holbrook, 1947, p.357). However, others found the topic humorous. The New York Herald wrote: “The man who goes to church in New York today will hug himself with delight to find that the noon service has been curtailed to the extent of nearly four minutes…” (Fremo, 33).

     Despite the public’s reaction, standard time prospered. In 1918, more than 30 yrs. after railroads created time zones, the U.S. Congress passed the Standard Time Act (Holbrook, 1947). This act officially recognized standard time and gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the right to determine time zone boundaries. (Holbrook, 1947)

  Today people across the globe live and work by the standard times instilled in 1883. Everything from radio and T.V. shows, to business and club meetings, have since begu in a synchronized fashion. Now, travelers need only adjust their watches once, and when someone asks for the time, they are given only ONE response (Reed, 2003).

  All of this is now done efficiently and effectively through the standard time system: the same dream that Sanford Fleming created during his 16 hour “mistake”, and the reality that was established by the railroads.

4 of the 5 time zones proposed by Allen which are still used today.


American Antiquities Journal (2003) Time Becomes “Standard” Retrieved October   9,2003 from the World Wide Web:

Corliss, C. (1952) The Day of Two  Noons. Washington D.C.:   Association of American    Railroads.

Blaise, C. (2000) Time Lord. New  York: Random House Encyclopedia Americana #26   (1981)

Freundeskresis, E. (2001) The Day of Two Noons. Retrieved  October 9, 2003 from the World  Wide Web: (Fremo)

Gordon, J. (2001) Standard Time.  Retrieved November 9, 2003 From the World Wide Web:

Holbrook, H. (1947) The Story of  American Railroads. New York: Bonanza Books

Reed, L. (2003) It Wasn’t the Government That Fixed Your Clock. Retrieved October  9,2003 from the World Wide Web:                                                                                                                                                        

Solomon, B. (2001) The Heritage of North American Steam Railroads: From the First Days of Steam Power to the Present. Amber Books Ltd.