Man of the hour
Michael Downing wanted to find out what makes daylight saving time tick
Facts about daylight saving time
You'll probably do it without knowing quite why, along with most of the country. That's one theme of Cambridge writer Michael Downing's merry new book, "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time," which tells the story of America's odd and chaotic movement to change time by fiddling with clocks.
Downing, a 46-year-old novelist and writing teacher at Tufts University, had never given daylight saving much thought, until one recent October. ''I was turning back my clock," he said, ''and for the first time in my life, I thought, 'I have no idea what I'm doing.' I asked friends: 'Why do we do it?' And the more I asked, the more preposterous it seemed -- believing that I was actually getting rid of an hour, or adding an hour, to a day."
He looked into it and, to his delight and amazement, discovered that while ''most people have an immediate answer or two about who did it and why, almost to a person we are wrong."
Most people say that we go on daylight saving to benefit farmers or to save energy. And most people think the rule was foisted on us by government. In fact, Downing writes, farmers originally hated daylight saving, because it meant they had to get up earlier. No one knows whether it saves energy. And not only was it not a government idea, except for emergency measures during the world wars, there was no national law until 1966.
The idea of daylight saving seems to have originated with Benjamin Franklin, who noticed in Paris in 1784 that most people snoozed away hours on summer mornings after the sun was up yet complained about the cost of candles. Tongue probably in cheek, he observed shrewdly in a newspaper column that ''the sun gave light as soon as he rose." He proposed that church bells be rung at sunrise -- and if that didn't get people up, a cannon be fired in every street.
In World War I, Germany went on daylight saving to improve war production, and in 1917 Britain followed suit. The United States adopted it in 1918 but repealed it the following year, largely because of intense opposition from farmers.
Still, the idea had a powerful advocate: Wall Street. Before Britain and the United States adopted daylight saving, there had long been a five-hour difference between New York and London. The London Exchange closed at 3 p.m., which meant that when the New York Exchange opened at 9 a.m., it was 2 p.m. in London, providing one hour of frantic arbitrage, in which price differences between the exchanges could be exploited.
When Britain went on daylight saving and the United States followed, the one-hour window remained open. But after Congress repealed daylight saving in 1919, the window slammed. There were now six hours between the cities. When New York opened at 9, London was closing at 3 p.m. So the New York Stock Exchange decided to stick with daylight saving just for trading hours. The Boston and Philadelphia exchanges followed suit.
It wasn't only Wall Street. Department stores liked daylight saving, too. One big promoter was Boston's A. Lincoln Filene, who wanted factory workers to have more light for shopping after their work day ended. In 1920, New York's commissioner of public health, noting that tenement life tended to exacerbate tuberculosis, argued that with an extra hour of light, children would have more time to play outside. And there was the energy argument, though it has remained difficult to prove.
Despite the farmers, the rising middle class wanted more daylight for leisure, or to cook out or putter in their gardens. ''After-school sports opened up completely," said Downing, ''because the evenings were suddenly available. Baseball got behind it early, because they didn't have lighting, and evening games kept ending in ties. In the first season of daylight saving, ties were reduced from 22 to none." Golf was a big winner, too, because courses can't be illuminated. Downing said that daylight saving, combined with the rise of superstar Bobby Jones in the 1920s, ''set off a wave of golf-course building across the country."
In 1920, New York City passed a daylight-saving ordinance and was followed by other big cities as far west as Chicago, and one state, Massachusetts, in 1921. By 1928, Downing writes, 25 million people were saving daylight, in cities and counties scattered across 16 states. But it was a jolting bandwagon with a multitude of drivers. Rules varied widely. Rutland, Vt., started in May, while Auburn, Maine, started in June. Some localities saved daylight for three months, others for five.
Congress adopted daylight saving again during World War II and again went back in 1945, and the old disorder resumed. By 1950, 50 million people saved daylight; 90 million didn't. Only 18 states had it as late as 1965, and even after the Uniform Time Act of 1966, there were opt-outs. Clusters of counties in Indiana have it, while others don't. In 1986, Congress moved the start date from the last weekend in April to the first.
While there has always been opposition to daylight saving (a repeal petition, with arguments, can be found at www.standardtime.com), Downing said polls since the 1940s have consistently showed majorities in favor -- and some support for making it year-round, as it was briefly nationwide in the 1970s. ''For industries like barbecue and golf," Downing said, ''and other leisure activities associated with the sun, every additional week of daylight saving means millions of dollars in additional sales."
Yet the custom rests on an illusion: that we are doing something to time -- yielding an hour in the spring, recovering it in the fall. Of course, it's not so. Every day, year round, has 24 hours. All we do when we turn our clocks ahead is move our work, business, or school activities backward, closer to sunrise, which means more hours between ''quitting time" and the onset of darkness.
Downing himself is a supporter. ''The idea of getting people to spend more time outside their houses just seems to me good social policy," he said. ''I am a devoted lifelong fan of late summer evenings."
Even so, he can't talk about daylight saving without laughing, because the history is so wacky (when it was first proposed in England, the witty royal astronomer proposed that thermometers also be raised 10 degrees in the winter) and because even now, people have difficulty making sense of it. They tend to think there is firm scientific authority behind it, but in fact, Downing said, ''It has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with clocks."
However, it has a lot to do with emotion. Downing believes the semiannual ritual rekindles a primal connection between the sun and life, which he says the modern world has largely lost. ''Most people believe that the moment we turn the clocks ahead is the beginning of spring," he said. ''They have participated in getting rid of the darkness of winter, and the next day they wake up and say, 'The world is mine again!' "
David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.