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Saving daylight

10/30/2012 @ 8:56am

The time has come once again when we Americans will perch on the edge of our collective seats, waiting with bated breath to hear the answer to an extraordinarily important question: what time is it?

There is also a tiny matter involving some sort of election. But that takes a backseat to the annual conclusion of Daylight Saving Time. Besides, if you don’t know what time it is you could arrive at your polling place too late to cast a ballot. For example, you know you are extremely late if your plans include voting for Ross Perot.

Pretty much everyone knows the rule “spring forward, fall back” regarding our semiannual chronometer change. Most are also aware that this switch officially takes place at 2:00 a.m., although very few of us will stay up for the sole purpose of resetting our watches. Among those likely to be awake at that ungodly hour might be parents of very young children, in which case they can change the clocks right after changing the baby.

My understanding is that the railroads are largely responsible for the invention of time zones. Setting the time locally sometimes resulted in two trains attempting to occupy the same space at the same instant. Train wrecks cut into the railroads’ profitability and greatly inconvenienced their passengers, especially those who were hoping to get to the polls on time.

So it’s easy to understand why we have time zones. The roots of Daylight Saving Time are a bit murkier.

Legend has it that it all began with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a wit, a writer, a patriot, an inventor and a Founding Father, but he was also an inveterate party animal. He was essentially a brainy version of Charlie Sheen.  

Anyhow, it’s been said that Franklin woke up one day at the crack of noon. With nothing else to do until the pizza guy brought his breakfast at 2:00, Franklin began to calculate how much it cost him, in the form of candle wax, to host his all-night revelries.

He was aghast at the expense. He became even more mortified when he realized that he didn’t have a famous movie star father to foot the bill for him.

Franklin could have cut back on his nocturnal merrymaking, but that‘s not the American way. He instead proposed that we all change our clocks so that Happy Hour could begin an hour sooner. Everybody was fond of Ben and enjoyed his parties immensely, so his proposal was quickly adopted.

The only thing left to decide was when Daylight Saving Time should begin and end. When I was a kid, these dates were set in stone and spaced six months apart. That was a simpler time, before Isaac Newton had discovered gravity and invented his delicious fig-based cookie.

Congress eventually concluded that the six month system was so simple that the average citizen might actually understand how Daylight Saving Times works. They replaced the six month arrangement with a complex formula that takes into account the phase of the moon, the conjunction of Saturn and Venus, and whether or not Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow.

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