By Howard Mansfield, The New York Times, March 10, 2011
Not long ago, clocks were thought to be dangerous. Folklore had it that two of them ticking in the same room could bring “sure death.” It’s easy to see how this belief arose. The clocks were almost certain to disagree, and in the space between two chimings of one hour, uncertainty crept in; the machines’ authority was undermined. We don’t like to be reminded that clock time is a convenient fiction.
Daylight saving time, which begins on Sunday, is unsettling in the same way. Winding the clock forward in March and back in November is like biannually changing the measure of an inch.
This tinkering with clocks is our inheritance from a people obsessed with time. Clocks spread rapidly in early America. They were expensive imports, but popular among the Puritans, who despised idleness. Massachusetts passed a law in 1663 making the wasting of time a crime: “No person, householder or other shall spend his time idly or unprofitably, under pain of such punishment as the court shall think meet to inflict.” A century later, the Boston-born Benjamin Franklin (“time is money”) proposed a version of daylight saving time as a joke to stop slothful Parisians from sleeping in. But it was an English Puritan, Ralph Thoresby, who invented an early alarm clock.
By the mid-19th century, Americans were producing their own clocks. Workshops in Connecticut produced cheap models with wooden gears. Peddlers sold them from coast to frontier. The “Yankee clock peddlers” managed to “stick up a clock in every cabin in the western country,” reported George William Featherstonhaugh, an English geographer who visited the States. “Wherever we have been, in Kentucky, in Indiana, in Illinois, in Missouri, and here in every dell of Arkansas, and in cabins where there was not a chair to sit on, there was sure to be a Connecticut clock.”
But all these clocks were like many Americans themselves: individual, conforming to their own notions. There were hundreds of local times, each city setting its city hall or courthouse clock to match its own solar noon. When it was 12 p.m. in Chicago, it was 11:50 a.m. in St. Louis and 12:18 p.m. in Detroit. But that wasn’t a problem because local time was all that mattered.
That changed when the railroads began to unify the country. The railroads ran by their own time, which vexed travelers trying to make connections. Many stations had two clocks, one for railroad time and one for local time.
To eliminate the confusion, railroads took it upon themselves in 1883 to divide the country into four time zones, with one standard time within each zone. To resist could mean economic isolation, so at noon on Nov. 18, 1883, Chicagoans had to move their clocks back 9 minutes and 32 seconds. It’s as if the railroads had commanded the sun to stand still, The Chicago Tribune wrote. Louisville was set back almost 18 minutes, and The Louisville Courier-Journal called the change a “compulsory lie.” In a letter to the editor, a reader demanded to know “if anyone has the authority and right to change the city time without the consent of the people?” In an 1884 referendum, three-quarters of voters in Bangor, Me., opposed the 25-minute change to “Philadelphia time.”
One sees the same annoyance with the “compulsory lie” of daylight saving time. When it was being debated in 1916, The Literary Digest saw it as a trick to make “people get up earlier by telling them it is later than it really is.” The Saturday Evening Post asked, in jest, “why not ‘save summer’ by having June begin at the end of February?” And an Arkansas congressman lampooned the time reformers by proposing that we change our thermometers: move the freezing point up 13 degrees and a lot of folks could be tricked into burning less fuel to heat their houses.
We adopted daylight saving time (during World War I), rejected it (after the war), adopted it again (during World War II), and then left it up to the states and localities until 1966, when Congress once more decided it was a national concern. And as much as we complain and point out that it doesn’t make anyone more productive or save any energy, it persists. Almost every state has eight months of it each year and only four months of so-called standard time. As a result, today we rose with the dawn and next week we’ll be eating breakfast in darkness.
The change is disconcerting. But more unsettling still is the mystery we’d rather not face: If clock time isn’t real, what is time, anyway? We don’t understand time, and we definitely don’t want to admit that our allotment is limited. We just want to get on with our day.
Howard Mansfield is the author of “Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart.”