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Daylight saving merry-go-round

If timing is everything, and a stitch in time saves nine, and time waits for no one, it seems important that we know what time it really is.

Enter our friend daylight saving time, that point in the year when we ask ourselves, “Is it spring forward or spring back?” That brief moment of confusion is nothing compared to the uncertainty caused by years of on-again and off-again clock manipulation.

It all began as a joke in 1784 when Benjamin Franklin was the U.S. ambassador to France. Franklin, overweight and suffering afflictions of his age, still found time to entertain his adoring friends. In the French fashion, he conversed, debated, and played chess until 3 in the morning, then retired to bed, sleeping until noon.

At about 6 o’clock one morning, a servant recovering dishes from the previous night’s party dropped a fully loaded tray. Instantly awake, Franklin sat up in bed and squinted his eyes against the surprising sunlight beaming through a window. “I was thinking it somewhat extraordinary,” he later wrote, “that the sun should rise so early.”

With tongue stuck firmly in his cheek, old Ben’s scientific and thrifty mind went to work on a theory. Over 100,000 Parisian families had been sleeping through six hours of daylight each day, burning a half pound of candles per hour for seven hours each night, a waste of over 64 million pounds of wax in six months — an “immense sum!”

His answer? Daylight saving time.

No one in America gave the idea serious thought. Time was a relative thing in the United States, where most people got up with the sun and went to bed with the dark.

Then came the railroads. With no standardized time in the country, long-distance train schedules were a twisted puzzle. To sell more tickets and carry more freight, customers across the country needed exact schedules. The country was divided into time zones regulated by railroad telegraph.

In World War I, Congress passed the Standard Time Act of 1918 to save energy — establishing national time zones and national daylight saving time.

After the war, the time zones remained, but Congress repealed the unpopular time change. Daylight saving time became a rarely used local option until World War II, when it was renamed “War Time” and observed year-round and nationwide from February 1942 through September 1945.

Following the war, Oregon was a patchwork of cities and counties all running on different clocks. In 1948, Medford approved daylight time for the summer, following the lead of Grants Pass and Klamath Falls. However, Ashland and Jackson County remained on standard time, as did almost everybody else.

After this one summer of bad timing, there was little support for a renewal of what the newspaper called “This Daylight Time Rigmarole.” When the idea did manage to reach the ballot in 1954 and 1960, voters rejected it. But in 1961, Oregon’s Optional Fast Time Law temporarily allowed five northern counties to switch to daylight time in support of the Seattle World’s Fair.

With no standards in place, the time confusion continued nationwide until Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966, creating daylight saving time for the entire country, but allowing local governments to exempt themselves. Though the benefits of the change are argued each year, Oregon still stands with the majority.

Here’s hoping you sprang forward, not back, yesterday. If not — you’re late.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.