Don’t forget to change the clocks this weekend. Perhaps Howard Mansfield’s op-ed in today’s New York Times will remind you. This is a nice historical piece on time zones and daylight savings time in American history. Here is a taste:
…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.