Thursday, March 31, 2005

On "horologic schizophrenia"

Those who, like anyone sensible, hate re-setting clocks twice a year (sooner than you think). This very enjoyable review of what appears to be a fun book may ease the pain. From today's WSJ "Bookshelf":

Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?
By BILL KAUFFMAN March 31, 2005; Page D8

Spring ahead, fall back.

Oh, must we?

This weekend brings Daylight Saving Time, that puzzling ritual of mass clock-winding ill befitting freeborn Americans. And now, just in the nick of time -- OK, 86 years too late, but time is malleable -- comes novelist Michael Downing with "Spring Forward" (Shoemaker & Hoard, 202 pages, $23), a lively history aimed at debunking the "uncanny idea of falsifying clocks to delay the apparent time of sunset."

Ben Franklin proposed the conservation of daylight in a whimsical 1784 essay, but the real father of Daylight Saving Time was British architect and -- crucially -- golfer William Willett, who deplored "the waste of daylight" in a 1907 pamphlet. The British royal astronomer ridiculed Willett's plan, suggesting instead "that between the months of October and March the thermometer should be put up ten degrees."
The strange history -- and disturbing implications -- of Daylight Saving Time.

It took the exigencies of World War I to convince governments to adopt Daylight Saving Time. (The claim was that it would cut back on energy use, though evidence was scant.) The success of DST in Europe was not lost on the scheme's U.S. advocates. They "had long been dismissed as caddies for the interests of the leisure class," writes Mr. Downing, but now they "shifted the battle from the golf links to the trenches." Setting clocks ahead, they promised, would permit scarce resources to be shifted to munitions. "Daylight's proponents wrapped themselves in the flag, appropriated the war effort" and won. They painted their foes -- a "coalition of miners and farmers, Populists and Republicans, ministers and movie moguls" -- as, literally, the forces of darkness.

"From the first," notes Mr. Downing, "farmers opposed Daylight Saving, which was an urban idea of a good idea, hatched in London and cultivated in the cities of Europe and the northern United States." New York City-based merchants subsidized the DST campaign, though Broadway suffered when darkness -- and curtain rise -- was delayed.

Indifferent to the arguments of the daylight-mad Chambers of Commerce, cows proved unwilling to adjust their milking habits to the new time. Nevertheless, President Wilson smugly lectured husbandmen that the farmer's "life and methods are more easily adjusted, I venture to think, than are those of the manufacturer and the merchant."
Illinois Rep. Edward King charged that DST benefited "the pleasure-seekers, the swivel-chair ornaments, and the golf players" by giving them an extra hour of daylight for their decadent recreations. Critics referred to DST as "golf time." And indeed, Daylight Saving was a tremendous boon to golf, as duffers might stride the links till 9:30 of a summer night. President Wilson was "a genuinely fanatic golfer," but he hid the niblick under his hairshirt, emphasizing sacrifice rather than pleasure.
Farmers demanded, and got, DST repealed after the war. The battle over time shifted to the states and cities, with the populated East the stronghold of the time-shifters. In one act of chrono-tyranny, Connecticut made it illegal to display the wrong time on a wristwatch.

Yet as the perceptive Mr. Downing observes, the claim by DST foes that they were defending "God's time" was specious. God's time had been junked in 1883, when the railroad industry, frustrated by localized timekeeping, adopted Standard Time. Within minutes -- or months -- governments across the country reset their clocks accordingly. In the old laissez-faire America, cities kept their own time. If it was 11:32 in Buffalo it might be 11:41 in Albany, and so what? Is not variety the spice of life?

Not to the iron horse. Heaven forefend that states and cities might set their own times, wake to their own sunrises. Efficiency eclipsed the sun as the American timekeeper. The U.S. was divided into four standard time zones. Thus noon comes simultaneously to Detroit and Bangor, sun be damned.

Those who love daylight but dislike compulsion -- President Harding among them -- supported "voluntary" DST. That is: Wake up earlier! Make the day's events conform to the sun's time; in spring and summer, begin work, school and baseball games an hour earlier. Alas, noncompliance doomed this sunny compromise.

In 1942, FDR reimposed DST as a year-round measure. He called it "war time." Once again, peace brought repeal, and the states of the union tick-tocked, as Mr. Downing puts it, in "horologic schizophrenia," which also goes by the name of federalism. By 1965, 18 states observed DST, 12 did not, 18 more "halfheartedly participated," and contrarian North Dakota and Texas observed "daylight in reverse," winding their clocks back one hour. Calculating interstate airline and bus schedules was a job for savants.

But then uniformity rode in on her pale gray horse. Since 1966 we've sprung ahead when Washington says to, though Arizona, Hawaii and eastern Indiana stubbornly refuse to adopt Daylight Saving Time. For the rest of us, DST now runs from the first Sunday of April to the last Sunday of October, or seven months a year, "which means that Daylight Saving Time has become our Standard Time."

Stripped of its bogus efficiency arguments, Daylight Saving Time amounts to an extra hour for shopping and golf. Middle-class consumers are pitted against farmers -- and we know who has the numbers. By 2000, writes Mr. Downing, "the number of Americans living on farms was approximately equal to the number of Americans who were permanent residents of golf-course communities."

The bogeymen have trounced the dairymen. Spring ahead, and fore!

Mr. Kauffman's most recent book is "Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette" (Henry Holt/Picador).