Well, today we say goodbye to Daylight Savings time for 2021.  I hope you all enjoyed your extra hour of sleep. 

Before the middle of the 19th Century, keeping time was more of an art than a science.  Time pieces and clocks were available, even common in certain circles but they were notoriously inaccurate.  However, the act of keeping time isn’t now and has never been strictly about monitoring its passage.  The availability of timepieces was essentially limited to the upper class, where you would generally only see pocket watches and exquisite clocks in the homes of the wealthy. For the masses, the best option (other than sundials) was to wait for public announcements of the time.  Owning a watch or clock was a way to express that one was wealthy in the 18th century.  For most people, time was announced by a community clock (like at Independence Hall) and bells.  The precise time as not critical, only when to go to certain events, like church services or report for militia duty.

In the early 1700’s, ships often ran aground due to inaccuracies in their navigational tools that used time to measure longitude. In 1735, John Harrison built a marine chronometer that he continued to work on for many years in order to perfect it. By the time he had finished his final design, it had improved immensely on the accuracy of previous models and was accurate within 5 seconds. This improved safety immensely for seafaring enterprise, allowing them to know where they were anywhere in the ocean if they had the appropriate tools.

Most, clocks, however, remained highly inaccurate and regularly lost time.  Typically, the large community clocks were reset daily when the sun reached its zenith.  For this reason, the local time varied with geography.  Noon in Philadelphia would occur about 30 minutes before noon in Pittsburgh.

This difference was insignificant in the 18th century, because even though people would travel from town to town, travel was slow so these differences were hard to perceive.  It was not until the middle of the 19th Century with the invention of railroads and steamships that people needed to know the time with precision and have all places (at least along that particular line of travel) reporting the same time.  In 1849, Sandford Fleming advocated the adoption of a standard time or mean time, as well as hourly variations from that according to established time zones. Fleming’s system, still in use today, established Greenwich, England (at 0 degrees longitude) as the standard time, and divides the world into 24 time zones, each a fixed time from the mean time. Fleming was inspired to create the standard time system after he missed the train in Ireland due to confusion over the time of departure.  Standard time in time zones was not established in U.S. law until the Standard Time Act on March 19, 1918.

Daylight savings time won’t come into being until the middle of the 20th Century when Franklin Roosevelt instituted “War Time” from February 9th, 1942 until September 30th 1945.  This measure was intended to conserve energy and redirect resources to the war.  It would be reinstated in its current form (spring forward, fall back) in 1966 (although from January 1973 to April 1975 it was full time Daylight Savings Time in order to save fuel during the OPEC embargos).  There is, however, a persistent myth that Benjamin Franklin invented Daylight Savings time.

Some people like to credit Benjamin Franklin as the inventor of Daylight Saving Time.  He did, after all write an essay in 1784 about saving candles and saying, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” in his Poore Richards Almanack but these were meant more as satire than a serious consideration.  Remember, time is more of a local thing in the 18th Century and being as much as an hour off the accepted time was not altogether unheard of.  Daylight Savings with its readjusting the twice a year would have been a practical impossibility with the clocks of the day.  In Franklin’s lifetime, people generally reset their clocks to local noon (or the chiming of the church bells) and that time actually fluctuates by almost an hour over the course of the year. 

When Franklin penned his essay on the thrift of natural lighting (entitled An Economic Project) while ambassador to France to the Journal de Paris it was part of a series of tongue-in-cheek suggestions as to how Parisians could save money.  Franklin noted that Parisians rarely awakened before noon, and they were fairly ignorant that the sun rose earlier each day approaching the summer solstice for longer days and that, subsequently, the days grew shorter each day approaching the winter solstice. He postulated that if Parisians rose in the morning and used sunshine instead of candles, they would save significant francs on evening candles.  Franklin went on to suggest new regulations—steeped in humor and sarcasm — that included taxing window shutters, stopping non-emergency coach traffic at night, and firing cannons in the morning to get “sluggards” with the program.  So, while Franklin merely pointed out how daylight could be best utilized by being “early to bed and early to rise,” he did not “invent” Daylight Saving Time.  He may have practiced it so as to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise” but his essays were more in jest than intended as words of wisdom.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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