Spring Forward

The detailed analysis of a seemingly small thing has been a trend at the turn of the twenty-first century. Mark Kurlansky devoted more than four hundred pages to Salt: A World History (2002), following his Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997). Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995), John McPhee’s The Founding Fish (2002), and Philip Ball’s Life’s Matrix: A Biography of Water (2000), written by true polymaths, show the heights to which this form can soar, pulling together history, literature, philosophy, and science in wonderfully engaging prose. In 2005, two more authors have attempted to join this noble roster with similar books: David Prerau, with Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, and Michael Downing, with Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. In Downing’s case, a tremendous amount of research has been devoted to uncovering the history of Daylight Saving Time, and he is eager to share everything he knows.

Most people in the United States turn back their clocks one hour in the fall (that is, they “fall back”) and ahead one hour in the spring (they “spring forward”), without having any clear sense of the history of what they are doing. Few know exactly when the clocks are supposed to be adjusted, although federal law mandates when the change will occur. Practically no one understands what the term “daylight saving” means, as Downing found in an informal survey of his friends and acquaintances: “Were we saving daylight when the sunrise was earlier or when it was later? Unclear. When had Americans started to fuss with their clocks? Also unclear. Who saved what when?”

As Downing points out, much of what people think they know about Daylight Saving Time is wrong. For example, most people think farmers had something to do with it, because farmers wanted more sunlight in which to get their work done. Although this argument was put forth by a series of city-dwelling congressmen in support of Daylight Saving, farmers were among the first opponents of the plan. After all, they explained to anyone who would listen, a farmer might set his watch ahead one hour, but that would not change the time at which a cow was ready to be milked. Cows that were milked at 5:30 in the morning during the winter would need to be milked at 4:30 during Daylight Saving Timeno advantage to the milker. Under Daylight Saving, a train might leave the station at noon, the moment that had been called “eleven o’clock” during the winter. Moving the clocks did not speed the sun’s movement, and grain that needed a certain amount of sunlight for the morning dew to dry before it could be harvested might not be ready to meet that train. Downing traces a century of farmers’ consistent objections to Daylight Saving, showing how in this regard, as in many others, rural citizens were outvoted by their city neighbors.

Another popular idea is that Daylight Saving Time was created to protect schoolchildren, or to give them an extra hour of family time before bed. In fact, like farmers, schoolchildren have been used as evidence on both sides of the debate, presenting what Downing calls an “emotionally charged issue [which] defied rational analysis.” The first mention of schoolchildren in the Daylight Saving Time debate did not come until 1942, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had declared War Time, a year-round Daylight Saving plan meant to save energy and increase war-related production. Coincidentally, it was a group of Idaho farmers, wanting to revert to Standard Time so they could get the fall harvest done at reasonable times, who pointed out that western Idaho schools had begun opening as late as ten o’clock in the morning so that children would not have to travel in the dark. “For the next fifty years,” Downing writes, “communities across the country would attribute many early-morning pedestrian and school bus accidents to the untimely darkness created by Daylight Saving.” In the 1970’s, data seemed to show an almost imperceptible increase in early-morning fatalities involving school children, and data in the 1990’s seemed to show a more dramatic decrease in afternoon and evening fatalities with Daylight Saving. Again, the data are almost beside the point. As Downing demonstrates, the debate over the past century has been driven more by emotion and misinformation than by...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)