Sunday, November 7, 2010

“It is the sun and not the laws of man than determines daylight and darkness”

Benjamin Franklin
At about 6:00 a.m. one morning in Paris, Benjamin Franklin was awakened by a sudden noise, and was surprised to find “my room filled with light; and I imagined at first that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows.  I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon., from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.”  Franklin wrote to the Journal of Paris that “your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon...will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early.”  Franklin goes on to consider all the candles that might be saved if Parisians went to bed and arose earlier.  Some consider Franklin the first proponent of what we now call Daylight Savings Time.

At this point, dear reader, you might pause to change your clocks, since the occasion for this post is that early this morning the United States switched from Daylight Savings to Standard Time.

There is a legal history of daylight savings, complete with a Holmes opinion upholding a Massachusetts daylight saving law.  My interest in the subject, however, stems from the fact that another name for daylight saving in World War II was “war time.” Daylight saving was first instituted in the United States as an energy saving measure during World War I.  While some liked an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day, farmers and others who worked early in the morning complained.  "God knows more about time than President Wilson,” one person protested. 
photo source

While some states and localities adopted daylight savings in later years, in World War II the federal government moved the clock forward an hour, imposing daylight saving all year long.  Secretary of War Henry Simson supported it to save energy and keep war production up.  But many Americans objected, sometimes rather colorfully.  At hearings on a repeal bill in 1944, Congressman Joseph P. O’Hara of Minnesota read this excerpt from a constituent letter into the record:
To delude one’s self that it is 6 o’clock when the sun, moon and stars and God in heaven have ordained that it is but 5 o’clock, I believe justifies the...statement that the so-called daylight saving time probably stands at the head of the list as an example of complete asininity.
Although standard time itself was a human construct, many persisted in the idea that standard time was natural or God-given, like the Oklahoma State Senate, which passed an anti-daylight saving resolution insisting that “It is the sun and not the laws of man than determines daylight and darkness.”

Many of the tensions over war time stemmed from the ways clock time had come to be experienced as an essential element of culture.  While the timing of much farm work was dictated  by the sun, “people want to live by the clock,” a Farm Bureau representative explained.

A “war time” repeal bill passed Congress not long after V-J Day, and daylight saving ended September 30, 1945.  Following a period of “clock chaos,” when some states and localities adopted daylight savings but others did not, Congress adopted national, standardized daylight savings time in 1966.

The basic story of daylight savings time appears in David Prerau, Sieze the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time.