Facts of the Matter
Richard Brill

Sunday, May 1, 2005

Standard time
came about
fairly recently

It is easy to forget that time is a difficult concept with many different meanings. Likewise we find it hard to visualize that it is not the same time everywhere on the planet at the same time.

Timekeeping is based on solar time, mimicked by clocks that rotate "clockwise," the direction that the shadow moves across the face of a sundial

Until the advent of the telegraph and railroads in the mid-19th century each location was on its own solar time, and time differences between locales were not significant because of the travel time between them.

Solar noon is when the sun is on the local meridian, when a shadow points directly north or south. The earth rotates from west to east at 15 degrees per hour, which at mid-latitudes is about 750 miles.

Any two locations on the same meridian (at the same longitude) will experience local noon simultaneously, but two locations at different longitudes experience local noon at different times as the earth rotates.

By 1883, the ability to send time signals over long distances via telegraph and a network of railroads trying to coordinate schedules were causing much confusion and frustration. There were over 300 local times in the United States, which prompted the railroads to adopt a system of Standard Time.

Following a plan outlined by Sir Sandford Fleming, a Canadian railway planner and engineer, delegates from 27 nations met in Washington, D.C. in 1884 for the "Meridian Conference."

The delegates adopted Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as the standard of world time on Nov. 1,1884, and created the present 24 time zones, based on the the prime meridian through Greenwich, England, site of the Royal Observatory.

The United States Congress enacted the "Standard Time Act" on March 19, 1918, thereby formalizing standard time zones based on those set up by the railroads.

The responsibility and authority to make changes in the time zones was placed under the Interstate Commerce Commission, the only federal transportation regulatory agency at the time. Authority was transferred to the Department of Transportation when it was created in 1966.

The notion of "saving" daylight by setting clocks ahead was conceived by Benjamin Franklin in 1784, in a letter to the editor of a Parisian newspaper. The stimulus was a demonstration of a new type of oil lamp that Franklin witnessed and a discussion that followed about the amount of light produced per weight of oil.

For the amusement of his Parisian comrades, and parodying his own renowned thriftiness and the late-rising habits of Parisians, Franklin calculated that shifting daylight one hour later into the evening for six months would save 64 million pounds of the tallow and wax used in candles.

The first serious advocate of Daylight Saving Time was a London builder, William Willett. In 1907 Willett proposed an elaborate and awkward scheme of advancing clocks 20 minutes on each of four Sundays in April, then retarding them in equal increments in September.

His idea was aroused during an early ride one summer morning, when he noticed that the blinds of many houses were closed to keep out the morning light.

He published a pamphlet advocating DST in which he noted that everyone appreciates the long, light evenings of summer and that the morning light is seldom seen or used.

After a year of lobbying, and spending a fortune to promote the idea, he attracted the attention of a member of the House of Commons, who introduced a bill in 1909. The bill was met with opposition and ridicule, especially by farmers. Willett was lampooned and labeled a nut.

In the heat of World War I, Germany began "saving" daylight on April 30, 1916, in an effort to conserve fuel needed to produce electric power. Other countries in Europe, including Britain, immediately followed suit, all within a year after Willett's death.

The United States formally adopted DST in the 1918 "Standard Time Act," but after the war ended six months later, the law proved so unpopular that it was repealed in 1919.

DST remained a local option, with a few states and a handful of cities continuing the practice, reincarnating on a small scale the timetable confusions of the previous century.

During World War II, President Roosevelt instituted year-round Daylight Saving Time, called "War Time" from February 1942 to September 1945.

From 1945 to 1966, there was no federal law about Daylight Saving Time, so states and localities were free to choose whether to observe DST and to decide when it began and ended.

This caused confusion dwarfing that of the days before standard time as the broadcasting and transportation industries were feeling the pressure of having to publish new schedules every time a state or town began or ended DST.

In one famous example, along a 35-mile stretch of highway between

Moundsville, W.Va., and Steubenville, Ohio, there were seven time changes!

By 1966, half of all Americans observed DST based on individual local laws and customs, but with different starting and ending dates. It was a mess of continental proportions.

Congress tried to end the confusion by enacting "The Uniform Time Act of 1966," which was signed into law on April 12,1966, by President Johnson. It created a nationwide Daylight Saving Time to begin on the last Sunday of April and to end on the last Sunday of October. It left the option for a state to exempt itself by passing its own law.

In 1972, Congress revised the law to allow a state that was in two or more time zones to exempt the part that was in one time zone from DST while allowing the part in the different time zone to observe it, thereby bringing the two parts of the state into time zone synch for half of every year.

Since 1986, when the federal law was amended to begin Daylight Saving Time on the first Sunday in April, most of the United States "springs forward" and "falls back" each year with the ritual of setting and resetting all of the clocks.

Only Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, most of the Eastern Time Zone portion of Indiana, and Arizona do not observe DST.

With the exception of Eastern Indiana, these are all in subtropical regions where there is little difference in summer and winter sunrise and sunset time.

A controversy is heating up now in in Indiana as if to remind us that time is a legislative phenomenon as much as is is a natural one.

Richard Brill picks up where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical science and investigates life and the universe. He can be contacted by e-mail at rickb@hcc.hawaii.edu

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