The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

Local News

November 7, 2010

Daylight-saving time? Ben Franklin's bright idea

HUNTSVILLE — This is the time of year when we become painfully aware of how many clocks are in our homes, a product of daylight-saving time and the process of adjusting our clocks to “fall” back one hour.

There’s one on the microwave, oven, coffee maker, computers, televisions, and an alarm clock in each bedroom. The list seems to go on forever. And each year we ask ourselves, “Who came up with this idea? Is this really necessary?”

As it turns out, daylight-saving time was first introduced to the world by Benjamin Franklin. In his essay “The Economic Project,” which he wrote during his time in Paris, he complained of being awoken by the early morning sun and decided he had a logical remedy. By simply moving the clocks one hour forward he would not only be permitted to sleep later, but he also calculated that the Parisians would save “an immense sum” of candle wax by postponing sundown.

Franklin’s idea fell on deaf ears for more than a century, until British builder William Willett successfully proposed Daylight Saving Time to Parliament after coming to the disappointing realization that the British were “wasting daylight” by not waking up until after the sun had risen. Parliament eventually passed a law requiring the British to “spring” their clocks forward in April and then “fall back” in the winter.

Americans adopted the idea in 1918, hoping to bask in the sunshine, while also embracing Franklin’s practical concern of energy conservation.  In fact, during World War II, a year-round daylight-saving plan, “War Time,” was put into place in an effort to decrease fuel consumption.

Throughout the 1900s, though, there existed a political tug-of-war between the proponents and dissenters of Daylight Saving Time. At one point, the law was repealed, leaving it up to state and local governments to decide whether to observe the practice.  This quickly became a problem for travelers. For instance, in the 1960s, someone driving the 25-mile stretch of Route 2 from Moundsville, West Virginia to Steubenville, Ohio went through seven time zones. This inconsistency throughout the country is what caused many to support the reinstatement of Daylight Saving Time and led to the Time Act of 1966.

A study by the Department of Transportation in the 1970s indicated that saving daylight did, in fact, conserve energy, and this study was cited when Congress extended the practice in 2005, adding a month of longer evenings.

Not all studies, however, have come to the same conclusion.  A 2006 study concluded that it did not just fail to conserve energy, but caused the state to use even more energy. By switching to Daylight Saving Time the savings of the lighting costs in the evenings were outweighed by the cost of heating in the mornings and air conditioners in the afternoons. A study done in Australia one year later had similar findings.

Apart from the question of energy conservation, some people oppose it simply because they find it inconvenient.   Many find it difficult to make the time adjustments twice a year.  Sharon Gee of the Dallas Business Journal, for example, wrote that she’s “one of those folks who get a bad case of jet lag every time we ‘spring forward’ in April.” But it’s not just personal for Gee; she also noted that studies have shown that productivity wanes as people adjust to the time shifts. One such study found that the disruption in sleep patterns can “persist for up to five days after each time shift.”

Of course, some people are confused because they simply forget to set their clocks. My family, for example, typically marked Daylight Saving Time by arriving to church at the wrong time the next day.  Some students at SHSU have been known to miss class “because they forgot to reset their clocks,” although the pervasiveness of cell phones has forced students to rely more heavily on old standbys such as sick grandmothers, flat tires, and strep throat.  

In some cases, the confusion is both real and dramatic.  Perhaps no case demonstrates this better than a planned terrorist attack on Israel in 1999.  After setting their time bombs, terrorists set out to deliver their explosive devices to a bus, which they planned to blow up, killing dozens of innocent Israelis.  Apparently, they forgot to accommodate Daylight Saving Time, and ended up blowing up themselves when the bomb went off an hour earlier than expected.  

Despite the drawbacks of Daylight Saving Time, there seem to be plenty of people who enjoy the benefits. The longer evenings, for instance, allow for more relaxation by the pool or enjoying the outdoors. And Americans love summer days, when evenings are filled with barbecues, socializing and family fun.

So maybe Franklin and Willett were on to something.  What other plan can produce energy savings, long summer evenings and occasionally foil terrorist plots?

Dana Angello is a political science major at Sam Houston State University and is vice-president of the Political Science Junior Fellows.

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