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Sir Sandford Fleming

February 24, 2024

Sir Sandford Fleming (from a Hulton Archive Image)

By Guy Scott

As a young man, Sandford Fleming immigrated to Peterborough in 1845. He was trained to be an engineer and surveyor and found ready employment with local railway companies. He was a founding member of the Canadian Institute: a professional organization of architects, surveyors and engineers. Fleming designed Canada’s first postage stamp (3 penny beaver, 1851) and drew maps for most of Ontario. But his biggest claim to fame was his railway surveys. By the 1870s, he was arguably the best railway surveyor in Canada, in an age when railways were king.

In the 1870s, Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Dream (the transcontinental railway coast to coast) was in full swing. Fleming was hired to be chief engineer/surveyor. He made several trips across Canada planning the route, especially the critical route through the Rocky Mountains. Fleming was a rugged outdoorsman, and didn’t hesitate to personally explore passes through the rugged mountain chain. When the famous “last spike” was driven in December 1885, Sir Sandford Fleming was in the front row of this famous Canadian event.

Fleming traveled the world as a famous engineer, and his travels led to perhaps his most famous invention: time zones. One day he missed his train in Ireland thanks to time zone confusion. The time issue was a major problem around the world, and Fleming put his fine mind to solving the issue. He divided the world into 24 time zones that are (mostly) used today. There are a huge number of local variations, but today’s international time zones are basically Fleming’s ideas.

In his later years, Fleming served as chancellor of Queen’s University for 35 years. When a new community college was founded in Peterborough in 1967, it was named Sir Sandford Fleming College in his honour. Today Fleming College has branch campuses in Lindsay and Haliburton. Fleming was a respected figure around the world, and was an honourary member of engineering associations in Britain and the United States.

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