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Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time





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About the book:

"I didn't go to the moon, I went much further--for time is the longest distance between two places".

These lines, from Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie, aptly describe the correlative at the heart of Clark Blaise's brilliantly quirky exploration of the universal acceptance of time zones, and their advocate, Sir Sandford Fleming. At first glance, it appears as though yet another frock-coated Victorian is being dragged by his whiskers to the biographical fore, but Blaise's is more than a mere salvage operation. Fleming, a Scot-Canadian surveyor and visionary, was to produce the first street maps of Toronto, engineer the trans-Canadian railway, and pioneer the trans-Pacific telegraph from London to Australia. A timetable misprint in Ireland, and subsequent missed connection, also provided the stimulus for the notion of a 24-hour clock. His claim to the creation of a single standard time (precipitated by the railroads, which made a currency of time) was endorsed in 1884 at a conference that also set Greenwich as the prime meridian, to France's dismay. Fleming favoured an anti-prime, but there were last laughs for both Fleming and the French: Fleming's anti-prime became the International Date Line, while today France controls UTC (Universal Co-ordinated Time).

The subject may be the ordering of Time, but Blaise's course is feistily non-linear. Adopting a gently ironical tone, he rejoices in the sidings as much as the mainlines, where he digresses into literary, philosophical or personal musings rather than follow Victorian didacticism. The central axis of "Time Lord", which could pass for the frisky cousin of Dava Sobel's Longitude, is a study of modernism, with its notion of fractured, recycled time. There is an amazing section of nearly 40 pages without mention of Fleming, analysing writers such as Hemingway and Faulkner, and the penultimate chapter is an outrageously enjoyable tract on the representative character of Sherlock Holmes. Blaise, himself a Canadian, somehow pulls the threads together, and vibrantly captures the times of a Victorian who touched his life, and whose achievement still regulates our contemporary identity as "temporal millionaires", infatuated with e-mails and mobile phones. --David Vincent

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