Ben Franklin’s Proposal of Something Like Daylight Saving Time was Written as a Joke

Daven Hiskey 17
Today I found out Ben Franklin’s proposal of something like daylight saving time was written as a joke.

In a comedic letter he wrote, An Economical Project (published in 1784), “to the authors of the journal of Paris”, Franklin mentions something like daylight saving time. Although, instead of changing clocks, he suggested ringing church bells and firing cannons, among other things, as the sun rises to maximize the amount of time people would be awake during times when the sun is providing free light.  The letter was meant to be a satire, rather than actually suggesting these changes be made.

Here’s an excerpt of the letter:

You often entertain us with accounts of new discoveries.  Permit me to communicate to the public, through your paper, one that has lately been made by myself, and which I conceive may be of great utility.

I was the other evening in a grand company, where the new lamp of Messrs. Quinquet and Lange was introduced, and much admired for its splendor; but a general inquiry was made, whether the oil it consumed was not in proportion to the light it afforded, in which case there would be no savoring in the use of it.  No one present could satisfy us in that point, which all agreed ought to be known, it being a very desirable thing to lessen, if possible, the expense of lighting our apartments, when every other article of family expense was so much augmented…

I went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight, with my head full of the subject.  An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows.  I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o’clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day.  I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o’clock.  Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them that he gives light as soon as he rises.  I am convinced of this…

Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me.  One, indeed, who is a learned natural philosopher, has assured me that I must certainly be mistaken as to the circumstances of the light coming into my room; for it being well known, as he says, that there could be no light abroad at that hour, it follows that none could enter from without; and that of consequence, my windows being accidentally left open, instead of letting in the light, had only served to let out the darkness…

This event has given rise in my mind to several serious and important reflections.  I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations, which I shall give you, after observing that utility is, in my opinion the test of value in matters of invention, and that a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something, is good for nothing…  [From The Writings of Ben Franklin: An Economic Project]

He then goes on to estimate that a total of about 64 million pounds of wax would be saved in Paris alone over a six month period starting in spring if people woke up when the sun came up.  He then suggests a variety of methods to induce people who are “obstinately attached to [the] old custom” of getting up at noon to wake up with the sunrise, such as taxing people who have shutters on their windows, rationing candles, and waking people as soon as the sun comes up by ringing church bells and firing cannons.

Although, it’s quite clear he’s joking around in this letter, Franklin was known for putting more subtle jokes in many of his other papers that only the most astute would spot.  He was so famous for this that, according to Ormand Seavey, editor of Oxford’s edition of Ben Franklin’s autobiography, when they were deciding who should write the Declaration of Independence, they partially chose Jefferson over the significantly more qualified and respected Franklin, as some feared Franklin would embed subtle humor and satire in it that wouldn’t be recognized until it was too late to change.  Knowing this document would likely be examined closely by the nations of the world at that time, they chose to avoid the issue by having the much less gifted writer, Jefferson, write it instead, with Franklin and three others to help Jefferson draft it.

The modern day version of daylight saving time was first proposed by the New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson in 1895. The credit for the first to suggest the modern day DST system is often incorrectly given to William Willett who independently thought up and lobbied for DST in 1905.  He was riding through London one day in the early morning and noticed that a good portion of London’s population slept through several hours of the sunlit summer days.  If only he’d read Franklin’s letter, inspiration might have struck sooner.  Willet lobbied for DST until his death in 1915.  It was one year later in 1916 that certain European countries began adopting DST.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Daylight saving time once single-handedly thwarted a terrorist attack, causing the would-be terrorists to blow themselves up instead of other people.  What happened was, in September 1999, the West Bank was on daylight saving time while Israel was on standard time.  West Bank terrorists prepared bombs set on timers and smuggled them to their associates in Israel.  As a result, the bombs exploded one hour sooner than the terrorists in Israel thought they would, resulting in three terrorists dying instead of the two busloads of people who were the intended targets.
  • In March 2007, an honor student in Pennsylvania was accused of threatening his school with a bomb.  It was later found that he had actually called an automated school phone line to get information about class schedules;  someone else made the bomb threat exactly an hour later, but, due to DST, the time seemed to match up to when the honor student called.
  • Daylight saving time once got a man out of being drafted for the Vietnam War.  When drafted, he argued that standard time, not daylight saving time, was the official time for recording births in his state of Delaware at the time of his birth.  Thus, he was actually born the previous day using standard time, so he should have had a higher draft lottery number.  This defense worked and he didn’t have to go to war.
  • Many ancient civilizations used to adjust daily schedules to the sun, though not in the way we do it with DST.  For example, it was common to divide the day into 12 equal hours, regardless of the length of the day.  So how long an hour lasted varied based on location and time of the year.  To accommodate this, Roman water clocks used different scales for different months of the year.

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