Sunday, March 14, 2010

oh time in thy flight

It's time for the country to spring forward, an hour into the future. As an Arizonan--and thus one of the few people who don't partake of the clock change--I've always resented Daylight Saving Time and this year is no different, but this time around I'm tempering my resentment with grudging acceptance. I recently read Seize the Daylight, a book entirely about Daylight Saving Time (DST, and commonly called Daylight Savings Time, although now that I know there's not supposed to be an 's' I have a hard time putting it in because I'm stubborn like that), mostly because I didn't understand the point of it all and thought some knowledge might help. And it did... Sort of.

The immediate realization was that I had two misconceptions about DST right off the bat. The first was that DST was in effect during the winter and that the summer was "real" time, which is the opposite of true and probably a result of inattention as well as growing up in a state where DST isn't in effect. I also have to admit that spatial relationships between things is not my strong point, and no matter how many times I said "spring forward, fall back!" the actual relationship of time to itself on these days mildly confused me. (Probably the fact that all of my clocks automatically change themselves doesn't help; I remember and understand things far better when I have a physical role in their implementation.) I hate admitting that--it makes me feel dumb, frankly, and also like a girl for having relative spatial inability--but eh, it's true. This year I get it, mostly because I have reference charts and things that make more sense to my brain, but in the past it's been hard for me to remember if time is moving ahead, or back, or where I am in relation to where I was yesterday. Anyway.

My second misconception was that DST is "for the farmers", and this one is sort of funny because a) it's incredibly widespread (virtually every person I've asked has said basically the same thing--farmers! the damn farmers!), and b) it's absolutely and completely untrue. I don't know how they feel about it now, but when DST was in its planning and early trial periods the farmers totally hated it. Because they did their work by the sun instead of by the clock, all DST did was to force them to get up ridiculously early and start working in the dark so that they could sync up shipments and such with things that operate by the clock, like train schedules and market openings. In fact, a lot of farm work simply couldn't be done so early in the morning--wheat can't be threshed when there's dew on it, for example. So the poor farmers were getting up in the middle of the night, milking the cows, and then sitting around waiting for the dew to dry. How frustrating must that be? When DST was being heavily debated, it was often posited by agricultural interests as a battle between "golfers" (rich assholes who just wanted playtime in the evenings) and "people who did real work" (farmers).

So DST wasn't for the farmers, and it's during the summer when we have lots of light all the time anyway, so what's the point? It turns out that it actually is for playtime in the evenings, or at least that was the initial conception. In 1905, an Englishman named William Willet was up for a pre-breakfast horseback ride and began thinking that it was a shame that so much daylight was being missed by his fellow citizens, who were not as forward-thinking nor as early-rising as he was. So what, he thought, if everybody got up an hour earlier, got off work an hour earlier, and had an extra hour of light for leisure time in the evenings? And that was it. He spent basically the rest of his life trying to get his idea implemented, sparking worldwide debates but at least in the United States, the idea wasn't fully accepted until 1986. (It went into effect much earlier in England, Willit's home country, although he never actually got to see it in action.) Many countries eventually used DST during times of war or crisis, with the first being Germany during WWI, in order to conserve energy by allowing more work to be done by daylight instead of expensive artificial light. This was especially important during WWII, allowing work to be done without the interruptions and dangers of blackout conditions.

In the United States, it took us damn near seventy years--from its first wartime trial in 1918 to its passage into national law in 1986--to switch over completely. In between, sometimes we all did it, sometimes none of us (at least on a statewide level) did it, and sometimes it was a total free-for-all. We may all change our body and physical clocks like... well, clockwork, now, but for many decades it was a matter of serious and vehement debate. (My general feeling after reading my book was relief that I hadn't had to deal with living through it.) Farmers and urban dwellers, people on the east sides and west sides of various time zones, even religious and not-so-religious--we were talking about changing God's Time, after all, and screwing up the "natural" order of things, even though we'd basically invented clock time in the first place*--all got in on the action, and it sounds like total chaos. Many states let individual cities choose whether or not they wanted to do DST; sometimes small towns even let individual citizens decide what they wanted to do. Train schedules were hell to read, and there was one thirty-five mile bus ride that took its passengers through seven different time zones.

But eventually it was decided that that was dumb and in 1986 most of the country, excluding Hawaii, parts of Indiana, and Arizona (woot) went permanently to DST. In the summer we have more time in the evenings, and in winter it's dark and nasty anyway, and it gives us all a chance to bitch about how stupid we think DST is twice a year. For my part, while I'm not thrilled to be messing around with my body clock when I don't have to, I have to admit that I sort of get it now. I'd be sad if it got dark an hour earlier in the summer, but it's illogical to want that extra hour in the winter when it would involve the sun rising after nearly everybody was up and about. (The farmers! Think about the farmers.) As much as I hate to admit it, this may be the best way to go. I hate being proved wrong.

*Before standard time zones were implemented, clock time was determined on a town-to-town basis, and many communities dropped a "time ball" (Times Square on New Year's Eve is an offshoot of this practice) at noon every day (high noon was slightly different every day as the period of sun to no sun shifted throughout the year) so that everybody could reset their clocks to the correct astronomical time. Railroads, with their faster rate of travel, were largely responsible for the way we divide our time zones now, and for the standardization of time in general. I actually found the push for time standardization more interesting than the push for DST, because it is amazing to me that we once had to struggle so hard with something as basic as what time it might possibly be. Fascinating.


Z said...

I'm still resentful. So resentful.

pulley-whipped said...

well, i learned a lot today. i will hence forth stop blaming "the damn farmers" but i still don't like it.

hannah said...

wow. intriguing!

I recently read some studies suggesting that dst causes increased car and work-related accidents. at least for about a week while we adjust.

I also read that some governor in connecticut tried to abolish dst in order to "make people happy." aww.

(he failed)

ammie said...

Mugsie and Anna: I am also still not a huge fan, I just grudgingly admit that it's a decent system.
Hannah: It's true that studies have been done that show that the disruption to people's sleep clocks causes accidents, but what I've read has said that it's been more or less deemed negligible. One of the huge points of argument against DST initially involved sob stories about children being hit by cars while waiting for the bus in the dark. It was eventually decided that dark morning accidents roughly equaled dark afternoon accidents without DST. The book I read said roughly, "Politicians quickly realized that the media clout of possible afternoon accidents did not equal the clout of actual morning accidents."

Rosiecat said...

Arrgh! Count me among the resentful. I'm running a full hour behind this morning because of f*ing DST. Also, count me among those who thought we did it all for the farmers. In my graduate lab, where we studied biological time, we had many discussions about DST, but nobody really knew what the purpose was.

Maybe tomorrow I'll be back on schedule :-) Tomorrow is tandem post day, Ammie!

erica said...

did you read anything about the halloween candy industry pushing for the day the clocks change (fall back? i share your arizonan confusion at how that expression is supposed to help me in any way) to allow for an extra hour of trick or treating? i heard that...somewhere.
and i'd like to add that it's really silly in alaska. it makes a difference for about a week on either end and then it's all dark or all light anyway and the whole thing irritates me beyond expression.
but this was a fascinating post, and i'll try to contain my resentment enough to, perhaps, learn from it.

a said...

Erica: Totally true; they wanted to give children an extra hour of trick-or-treating so that they would sell more candy. They lost, but a few years ago it was pushed back again, so now apparently Halloween will be the changeover day this year. Nestle must be thrilled.