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Watching Time Go By

Bill Meredith

We're officially into fall now, and it won't be long until we go back on Standard Time. I've always approached this event with a feeling of bemused aggravation. The bemusement is because of the illogic of it. The aggravation has been less severe since I retired; nowadays I don't really care what time it is when I get up, but when I was working I hated getting up an hour earlier in the spring

I suppose the illogic bothers people of my age more than younger generations, who appear to accept Daylight Saving Time as the natural order of things. My daughter got a sundial a couple of years ago, and we spent some time setting it up in the back yard. It was a cloudy day, but we had a compass and after some flummoxing around we got it lined up so XII (noon) was pointed exactly north. The next day my daughter called to inform me that either my compass or my eyes were not working right, because the sun was out and at noon the sundial read 11:00. I explained to her that the discrepancy was not my fault; it occurred because the sun stayed on Standard Time all year. I think she believed me, although she received this news with surprise.

Benjamin Franklin proposed the idea of Daylight Saving Time in an essay written in 1784, while he was ambassador to France. Some people thought it was another example of Ben's brilliance, but most folks were of the opinion that he had too much free time on his hands. I've always figured the fact that the idea didn't catch on was one more indication of the wisdom of our founding fathers. Nevertheless, the idea didn't go away. Germany adopted DST during World War I, and achieved a significant saving in energy costs, and after the war England and France did the same. Determined not to be left behind, in 1918, the U. S. Congress passed a law enacting it, over Pres. Wilson's veto; however, the American voters agreed vociferously with Wilson, and Congress quickly repealed it.

I first encountered DST in 1942, when Pres. Roosevelt enacted it to save energy and improve industrial efficiency during wartime. We called it "fast time" back then, and to my family, living on a farm, it seemed like a pretty silly idea. To us, the rooster started crowing when the sun came up, regardless of whether we called it 5 AM or 6 AM. We couldn't understand why, if certain factories claimed to benefit from it, they couldn't just tell their employees to come to work an hour earlier in the summer, and leave the rest of us in peace. One of our neighbors, a 90-year-old farmer who was still driving one of the original Model T Fords, was still angry at Congress for messing up the time back in 1918. I stopped by his house one day, on the way home from the hayfield, to get a drink of water, and there in the parlor stood a grandfather's clock, soberly ticking away and reading an hour earlier than my watch. I remember that I felt some admiration for the old gentleman for sticking to his principles.

Roosevelt originally mandated DST only for the duration of the war, but the genie was out of the bottle. When the original mandate ran out, there was a period of chaos. Some states, districts, counties and municipalities decided to be modern and have it, while others elected to stay on Standard Time; when you drove from one place to another, you never were sure whether you were going to arrive an hour early or an hour late. Congress came to the rescue again and enacted a law requiring each state to choose between DST and Standard Time, and setting nation-wide dates for setting clocks in the spring and fall. I believe all but three states now use DST.

My father worked at an aluminum mill as well as running the family farm, and when the war started he was assigned to the night shift. Many workers complained about this, so to treat everyone alike the mill started rotating shifts. The workers all changed each week… one week on day shift, the next on evenings, and then a week on nights. This reduced the complaining, but produced a variety of health disruptions; for example, my father was one of many who developed ulcers. Initially this was attributed to the stress of wartime, but after the war ended it did not go away.

Ecologists had discovered some 10 years earlier that animals have regular patterns of activity that can only be explained by some kind of internal time-measuring mechanisms… what we now call biological clocks… which enable them to start migrating south or to prepare for hibernation when the days grow short in the fall. In those days it wasn't widely known that humans also can measure time biologically; but when travel by jet planes became common, it was found that moving frequently across several time zones produced the same effect as changing work shifts, and "jetlag" entered our vocabulary. At the same time the navy, in anticipation of having crews isolated for long periods on nuclear submarines, was doing experiments in which volunteers lived in sound- and light-proof rooms for months at a time. These experiments showed that people soon adjust their activities to approximately 24-hour periods, even though they were without clocks or calendars, and that they were less efficient and less healthy if forced to follow activity patterns that were not based on 24-hour cycles.

We now know that all living things measure time and use the changing length of days and nights as seasons go by to regulate their life activities. In plants, seed germination, blooming of flowers, falling of leaves and winter dormancy are just a few of the things regulated by biological clocks. In animals, migration, hibernation, breeding cycles, and color change by molting are examples. Genes which regulate the ability to measure time have been discovered; we still don't know exactly how they work, but I expect we will before another decade passes.

Since it is now well known that sudden changes in activity patterns are not good for us, I think we would be better off if we scrapped the whole system of Daylight Saving Time and designed a new one. Sunrise should be designated as 6 AM and sunset as 6 PM; noon would be when the sun is straight overhead. Every clock and watch should be provided with a computer chip that would make it run slower in the daytime and faster at night in the summer, and vice versa in the winter, so days and nights would always be 12 hours long. The computer chips could be coordinated by global positioning satellites to compensate for latitude, so the farther north you go, the slower the hours would pass in the daytime, and so on. Since this is the way our bodies work anyhow, it would eliminate the need for DST entirely. The only problem then would be among people who get jet lag by traveling east and west too quickly. I'm still working on that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith