Looking to the Founders: Spring Forward, Fall Back

Each year as we approach the end (or beginning) of Daylight Saving Time (DST — Daylight Saving in the United States is the correct term, not Daylight Savings as it is usually mistakenly called), there seems to be a political debate as to the usefulness of such a scheme. Some encourage year-round DST, while others advocate totally departing from the system.

Looking to the wisdom and humor of Benjamin Franklin gives us a unique insight to his thoughts on saving daylight.

Paris, 1784

Franklin’s extended stay as American Emissary in France began to take its toll, with gallstones and gout confining him to his residence in the Parisian suburbs. To amuse himself, Franklin wrote several articles for various newspapers and academic journals — some serious, others more cheeky or jovial.

Franklin proposed that the Parisians were wasting 64 million pounds of candles each year between the spring and fall equinoxes.
One such letter was to the Journal of Paris, where he quite amusingly admonished Parisians to make use of the sunlight and quit wasting candles.

Franklin’s social life during his time in France is well known — both a court favorite and a ladies’ man. Franklin himself often admitted to staying up well past midnight and then sleeping in during the morning hours.

In his letter, he pokes fun of the Parisians for staying up until past midnight and then all sleeping until noon. In an elaborate calculation, he proposed that the Parisians were wasting 64 million pounds of candles each year between the spring and fall equinoxes — simply by “wasting the sunlight.”

Of course, Franklin’s plan (jokingly) was to pass legislation forbidding Parisians from staying up past 8pm or sleeping past sunrise, thereby eliminating the wasted energy by “harnessing sunlight” instead of burning candles.

While this wasn’t exactly Daylight Saving Time as we know it, Franklin hit upon an idea that was revisited several more times after the invention of electricity and dependence on fossil fuels.

Just what is time?

By the 18th century, mechanical clocks were becoming more common place — yet prior to electronic communication and railroad timetables, time was always calculated locally. The sun, when at its meridian height (directly overhead), was when noon was “called” each day. Clocks were reset every day (partially due to their inherent inaccuracy) to reflect the ever changing noon.

The problems with this sort of system can be immediately seen once faster travel and communication were introduced. Moving east or west by only 100 miles could affect the “local time” by as much as 10 minutes.

Once everyone is on set times (i.e. time zones), it opens the door to possibilities of exploiting the very nature of time to make the daylight “seem” longer.

Europe, 1916

Putting a maximum effort into the war, Germany and its allies implemented a system of daylight savings to help conserve coal and oil. The success of the program was immediately recognized, with most of Europe copying the idea. The United States initiated the same in 1918, with all of the world’s industrial powers on daylight savings time for the first time at the same time.

After WWI, most of Europe immediately abandoned daylight savings — yet America was a bit quirkier.

Farmers hated daylight savings, which is obvious in a profession that works from “can” to “can’t” each day. Industry and business, professions tied more to the clock than the sun, typically enjoyed the program — once again highlighting the urban/rural dichotomy that has plagued the United States since its inception.

Congress tried to repeal the measure, but was vetoed twice by President Wilson, who liked the idea because it gave him extra time to golf in the evenings. Congress overrode the second veto, yet some cities, such as New York City, maintained daylight savings measures locally to save expenses on street lighting and transit.

President Harding thought that daylight saving was a “grand deception” and came up with an equally common sense measure — just wake up earlier. During the summer of 1922, Harding mandated that all federal jobs start and end one hour earlier each day. Businesses in general resisted the idea, and it wasn’t repeated the next summer.

America would flirt again with daylight saving during WWII, but it wasn’t until we became more dependent on foreign oil that the real savings were realized.

The Modern Debate

Each year we have debate on whether Daylight Saving Time should be lengthened, shortened, or simply eliminated.

Whether real or imaginary, our modern sense of time is almost exclusively tied to the clock — daylight saving “seems” to allow us to see the sunrise without having to get up at the crack of dawn.

Jokes often circulate, like a supposed Indian proverb that states, “Only the White man would think that cutting one end off of a blanket and sewing it on the other makes a longer blanket.” But what does the research tell us?

In 2008, the Energy Department conducted research (a bit more scientifically than Franklin’s in 1784) that found that Daylight Saving Time saved 0.5 percent in energy consumption. While this sounds like a tiny amount, in a country with 120 million households, it adds up to almost 1.5 billion kilowatt hours — enough to power over 100,000 households for an entire year!

Even so, there are still two states, Hawaii and Arizona, that do not observe Daylight Saving Time. In the age of the Internet, this makes for certain unexpected complications — like the 750,000 distance learners (like myself) who attend Arizona universities online and have to be vigilant in remembering what time it is in Arizona!

I’m not entirely sure that Franklin’s idea of forcing people to wake up at sunrise through legislation would ever settle well with the American Spirit. Americans have a lot on their plates, from getting ahead to enjoying life itself, and it shows. We’re among the most sleep deprived people in the entire world — tying the Japanese in some surveys.

Daylight Saving won’t get us more sleep, yet if we can save energy and money, I’m all for going to year-round Daylight Saving Time. Saving money and giving us the illusion of extra daylight serves us well, even if it’s essentially the same thing as being awakened an hour earlier each day!