J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 11-14-11
When my son turned four, he became a random question generator.
“Dad, why is a shadow longer or shorter than what makes it?”
Or, “Dad, what holds that heavy apple to the limb?”
When my son heard us talking about “gaining an hour” when we went off daylight savings time in the fall, he had to ask, “Hey Dad, how much daylight do we save?”
I recalled when Nixon instituted Daylight Savings Time in January of 1974 – as an emergency addition to the Energy Conservation Act of 1973 – a cartoon appeared in our local paper. The first frame of the cartoon showed Nixon dangling a piece of rope in front of an audience, declaring it to be 24-inches long. In the next frame, Nixon took a pair of scissors and ceremoniously snipped an inch off the bottom of the rope. The final frame showed Nixon adding the removed 1-inch section to the top of the rope, declaring, “The rope is now 25-inches long.”
Recognizing this cartoon would probably be more confusing than helpful in answering my son’s question, I explained to him that, in the Old Days before electricity and railroads, timekeeping was basically “sun up to sun down,” because people didn’t need timetables for the simple commerce and travel practices of the day.
As an interesting tangent fact, humans didn’t accomplish consistent and accurate timekeeping at sea (for longitude determinations) until the early 1800s. A seaman’s clock was set by the position of the sun. Prior to John Harrison’s first sea-going clocks, no timepiece had been developed that could keep accurate time amid the tossing and turning of the ship, and the inevitable infusion of salt water. For centuries, the sea-faring nations of the world suffered catastrophic losses of cargo, and even entire fleets of ships, due to captains getting lost or going aground on reefs, not to mention the embarrassing comedy of warfare at sea when the battling nations didn’t even know where they were.
By the mid-1800s, with the advent of the steam engine came an industrial society, the various moving parts of which had to mesh with greater and greater efficiency. Notably, when the railroads were built, in roughly the late 1800s, a standard time became necessary if commerce was to function “on time.”
As the industrial revolution took off, and human industry and travel expanded, the need for more detailed and accurate timekeeping also expanded. The first time Daylight Savings Time was tried in the U.S. was in 1918, under “An Act to preserve daylight.” The Act was repealed in 1919 over the veto of Woodrow Wilson, who tirelessly advocated DST. Then, FDR brought back DST between 1942 and 1945, describing it as War Time, ostensibly to better mobilize the industrial war production effort, though the exact benefits were never seen. Nixon brought back DST yet again in 1974 as an energy conservation tactic, though since its implementation, the National Bureau of Standards has failed to register any benefit.
When I explained all this to my son, he again asked, “So how much daylight do we save?”
“Actually,” I had to admit, “we don’t save any.”