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Daylight savings: Disturbing sleep patterns for 100 years

Nov. 08, 2013 @ 05:27 PM

Last Saturday Lori and I were talking and she mentioned that we would get an extra hour of sleep the next morning because it was the end of daylight savings time. We didn't sleep in of course. I'm used to waking at 5 o'clock each morning and putting the clock back merely means I'm awake at around 4 instead.

Even at weekends I get up at the same time and usually I'm on my laptop typing something or other before it gets light. I think I'm at my most creative early in the day and in fact, many of these articles are written in the hours before the children are up. Despite this, 4 o'clock is early even for me, and while I did enjoy the extra writing time last Sunday it made for a long day and set me to thinking about daylight savings time.

Like so many of the inventions and ideas of the 18th century, the basic concept is usually credited to Benjamin Franklin. In 1784 he visited France and, while staying in Paris, he wrote an essay which he called "An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light." Its basic idea was that some of the cost of candles could be saved if people got out of bed earlier in the summer in order to make the use of the morning light. Luckily Franklin's ideas were not adopted because to enforce it he suggested a tax be put on shutters, candles should be rationed and that church bells should be rung and cannons fired at dawn each day to get people up.

Adjusting hours wasn't a new idea. The ancients recognized that the days were longer in the summer and made changes to their methods of time keeping. Indeed, Roman water clocks used different scales dependant on the season and some hours varied in length by up to 30 minutes between mid-summer and mid-winter.

As I said, Franklin's suggestion was not taken up and it was a New Zealand bug hunter, George Vernon Hudson, who first proposed modern daylight savings. His idea, presented to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1895, was for a two-hour adjustment of the clocks. He produced a further paper on the concept in 1898 but it was an Englishman, William Willett, who next got the idea in 1905 and published it in 1907. The proposal was read by Robert Pearce, a member of Parliament, who introduced it as a bill in Parliament the following year.

A committee was set up to examine the idea, but it did not become law and it was left to Germany to introduce the first daylight savings in 1916 in an effort to save on coal during World War I. Britain and several other countries followed suit within months and the United States joined them in 1918.

Following the end of the WWI, most countries dropped the idea of daylight savings although Britain and Ireland kept it. Indeed, during WWII Britain adopted the idea of "Double Summer Time," that was two hours in front of GMT in the summer and one hour in the winter.

Daylight savings returned to the United States on Feb. 9, 1942, ostensibly only to last until September 1945 but of course it continued after the war. It also caused localized chaos because individual states could choose when to start and finish it. Finally the confusion got so much that in 1966 Congress passed the Uniform Time Act, which said that daylight savings would start on the last Sunday of April and finish on the last Sunday of October, although individual states could still vote to exempt themselves from this ruling.

The length of the daylight savings period was amended in 1974 and 75 because of the oil crisis and statistics showed that by lengthening the period, up to 10,000 barrels of oil a day could be saved. Opponents protested that dark mornings endangered children going to school, upset people's sleep rhythms and made them unwell and over the years the period has been altered several times. Currently daylight savings starts on the second Sunday in March and ends the first Sunday in November, a period four weeks longer than Britain and most of Europe.

More than 70 countries around the world use some form of daylight saving time, the majority of them using the European dates. Naturally in the southern hemisphere the daylight savings occur in our winter.

Japan is a notable exception to the modern countries that have daylight saving. It was introduced in 1948 but was dropped in 1952 following many complaints, especially from those who worked from when they awoke until dusk. Toward the end of the 20th century there was some talk of re-introducing daylight saving but nothing was done about it officially until recently. The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster caused a nationwide power shortage that is still going on and experts are saying that switching to daylight savings could help alleviate the problem. I don't know if that will work but I do know I'm still trying to adjust to the hour, so for now I'm going to take a nap.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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