Friday, March 7, 2014

A Brief History of Daylight Savings Time

At 2am tomorrow morning, the time change will take place as America will spring ahead an hour as Standard Time will be replaced with Daylight Savings Time, which will run through the first week of November. While most lovers of the great outdoors will rejoice, astronomers will not as, thanks to the time shift, dark skies will arrive an hour later than “normal.”
So, the controversy known, how did DSTcome about?

To trace the origins of DST, one must travel back to France of the 1700s. At that time Benjamin Franklin was serving as an envoy to the French government. Now, France is at a higher latitude than most of the United States, which means that the length variances of day and night are more extreme thanks to the higher latitude. In France, Franklin was somewhat disturbed by what he considered people living out of sync with nature and paying for it, literally, in candles. When most people got up, the Sun had already been up for several hours thanks to France's higher latitude. However, instead of people adjusting their schedules to the natural sunlight, they merely got up at the same time they always did and, as a result, stayed up well into the night, burning untold numbers of candles.

Franklin's solution? People should get up earlier (and thus go to bed earlier) during the summer and make use of the natural sunlight so as to economize on candle usage. In fact, Franklin published this idea, anonymously, in a 1784, somewhat tongue in cheek, essay. In truth, Benjamin Franklin is not the father of DST, but he was the first recorded person in history to suggest that people live more in-tune with the Sun.

After Franklin, the world would have to wait more than a century in order to get more advocates for living in sync with the Sun.

Around the year 1900, two different men would bring the idea of an actual time change (rather than the wake up/go to bed time change proposed by Franklin) to the public forefront. In England, prominent builder/outdoorsman William Willet, like Franklin, hated the idea that people were sleeping half their mornings away and, on a personal note, hated having to cut his rounds of golf short due to early nightfall. It is Willet who is commonly credited with the DST idea despite the fact that New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson also proposed a time shift, 10 years previously. Hudson's personal stake: extra daylight would allow more time for specimen collection.

In the years following the time shift proposals by Willet and Hudson, the thought of springing the clocks forward started to spread around the world but, like with most political matters, more important issues came to the forefront, at least until 1916.

By the arrival of 1916, Europe had been at war for 2 years. As the then-called Great War continued with no end in sight, governments were looking for ways to cut costs for the war effort in any way they could. Then, come summer 1916, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) agreed to set the clocks ahead for an hour as a means for saving coal. The other belligerents
quickly followed suit. The United States, which entered the war in 1917, adopted a time shift in 1918.

Come the end of the war, though, DST was largely discontinued. However, with the advent of WWII, it would be re-instituted as, once again, an energy-saving measure. This time, though, it stuck around, although its advent wasn't formalized, at least in the United Sates, until 1966. Curiously, though, the Uniform Time Actwas not binding in that localities could choose to ignore it and keep Standard Time if they so wished. So far, Arizona and Hawaii still don't observe DST. In 2007, at least in the United States, DST was extended on both ends.

Another curious fact about DST is this: throughout history and around the world, the shift has not always been one hour. In the past, time changes ranging 20 minutes and 2 hours have been observed. Right now, there is debate in some countries whether to make DST the new Standard Time, as in having DST all year, while other nations are contemplating doing away with DST altogether. Also, there are pushes in some places to extend DST by springing ahead more than 1 hour, too.

In all, the whole business of time change an an interesting history lesson not found in most textbooks and is still history in the making.

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