Daylight: the Time to Play Politics

Lowell Ponte is a science editor for Reader's Digest.

By an act of Congress, the sun today begins rising and setting an hour later and will do so until the final Sunday in October. Our lawmakers work this magic by commanding that clocks be set ahead by an hour, letting us "spring forward," as if by time warp, on the last Sunday each April. This change to daylight-saving time gives most of us a longer twilight zone at workday's end.

If daylight-saving time is good, why not have more of it? Earlier this year the House of Representatives voted to increase daylight time by several weeks and a Senate decision will come later. Most scientists agree with the lawmaker's plan to begin delaying dusk on the first, not last, Sunday of April. But studies in two scientific journals conclude that to be most useful, daylight-saving time should end about a month sooner than at present; we should "fall back" to standard time at the end of September, not October as we do now--and certainly not later, not on the first Sunday in November as the House-passed bill requires. If congressmen are ignoring scientists in deciding how to reset our clocks, then to whom are they giving their time--and ours?

Perhaps the ultimate political power is to tinker with time. How politicians allocate it can mean big problems for some, huge profits for others. Behind the bill to lengthen daylight is a powerful lobbying effort by special interest groups that stand to make billions of dollars if they can change the clocks that order life. To understand the commercial basis for the politics of time, consider the history:

Time, the way we now tell it and live by it, was invented only 103 years ago, in 1883--created neither by scientists nor by our elected representatives, but by private companies to serve commercial purposes.

Before 1883 every town kept its own time, setting the town clock by sundial. When the sun's shadow pointed exactly north, the town clock was set at noon. This kept each town in harmony with nature, but out of step with other towns. As the sun moves east to west in the sky, sundial noon comes to Palm Springs before it reaches Los Angeles, although we now claim 12 o'clock in both places at the same time.

In a horse-and-buggy age it mattered little that each city set its own clock to Mother Nature's solar time, but the railroads found it difficult to make their trains run "on time." By mutual agreement, the railroad companies on Nov. 18, 1883, carved the United States and Canada up into four huge "time zones"--Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern. All railroad clocks and schedules could then conform to a uniform time within each zone. Several major cities adopted the new time standard immediately, and in 1918 Congress divided the nation along the same lines drawn by the private railroad tycoons.

Some citizens objected. In Tennessee, a preacher denounced the local railroad for trying to "take the place of God's sun." He smashed his watch against the pulpit to show "the worthlessness of man-made time." The Indianapolis Daily Sentinel editorialized: "People will have to marry by railroad time, and die by railroad time. Ministers will be required to preach by railroad time. Banks will open and close by railroad time . . . . We presume the sun, moon, and stars will make an attempt to ignore the orders of the Railroad Convention, but they, too, will have to give in at last." And, indeed, the time on your watch today is railroad time.

Once upon another time, people lived without clocks. In medieval European towns, days were divided only by vague periods called "tides." An echo of those simpler times appears in church references to "eventide services."

At the end of the Middle Ages, towns began procuring mechanical devices called clocks. These early clocks had only one hand, an hour hand, and divided each day into 24 hours. Why 24? Because ancient Egyptian priests had divided their days into 24 rituals, a notion adopted by the Romans and inherited by us. Each hour, these one-handed mechanisms rang a bell. The word clock , in fact, comes from a medieval word meaning bell. Remember Pavlov? Like the scientist's dogs trained to salivate when the dinner bell rang, we have been conditioned to live our lives by the school bell, the alarm clock and now the beeper.

People reconditioned their lives during World War I, as a measure to conserve light resources. The U.S. Congress, in 1918, followed enemy Germany and ally England by adopting daylight-saving time. When the war ended, so did so-called "fast time," largely because of opposition from farmers. Farmers work from sunrise to sunset and if a change of clock makes the sun set at 10 p.m., then the farmer misses church choir practice. City folks generally liked daylight time, however, and many big cities retained it. During World War II, Congress voted for year-round daylight-saving time, calling it "war time." Many cities and states kept it after war's end, causing new confusions.

The 1918 law establishing both time zones and daylight-saving time permitted cities to make their own decisions about daylight saving. By the 1960s, major business interests--including railroads, airlines and broadcasters--once again wanted more uniform time. They lobbied Congress, describing such freakish problems as an hour-long bus trip in the Midwest that required a time-conscious passenger to reset his wristwatch seven times in order to be accurate. In 1966, Congress took away daylight-saving options from cities, reserving such time-setting only for states. Today, Arizona and Hawaii stay on standard time year-round.

For a time in 1974, to deal with the Arab oil embargo, Congress expanded daylight-saving time to save an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil a day. But conservation quickly illuminated one of the chief problems with time zones: that the sun rises about an hour earlier on the eastern edge of a zone than on the western edge, even though clocks read the same on both edges. People on the western side already live by de facto daylight time. When Congress moved toward year-round daylight time, millions of western-edge parents were forced to send young children off to school under icy, star-filled skies. Sunrise for San Francisco in January, under daylight time, happened at about 8:45 a.m. Amid protest, Congress quickly reset itself and repealed the measure.

Now Congress is preparing to tamper with time again, encouraged by lobbyists from the Daylight-Saving Time Coalition. As Ben Franklin liked to say, "Time is money." How much money? Plenty, according to the Barbecue Industry Assn., the American Assn. of Nurserymen and convenience-store owners. Research shows, for instance, that working women like to shop at convenience stores during daylight hours but prefer better-lit supermarkets after dark; the 7-Eleven chain calculates that a few extra weeks of daylight time could increase sales by at least $30 million. The grand total, according to all interested businesses, is about $135 billion each year.

Even candy-makers count the minutes. By postponing "falling back" to standard time until the first Sunday in November, the bill sponsored by Reps. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) guarantees that Halloween will always happen during daylight time, meaning the little ghosts and goblins may be allowed an extra hour to knock on doors.

Daylight-saving time is like that: treat for some, trick for others.

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