J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Dr. Franklin and Daylight Saving Time

Some proud American authors credit Benjamin Franklin with the idea for daylight saving time (as well as, of course, nearly everything else not invented by Thomas Edison). I read that factoid a lot growing up. It’s based on a letter he sent anonymously to the Journal of Paris in 1784, when he was in France as an American diplomat.

In that letter, Franklin calculated how much the city of Paris could save if everyone got up with the sun instead of staying up till midnight burning candles. His grand total for merely half a year was “Sixty-four millions and fifty thousand of pounds [of wax], which, estimating the whole at the medium price of thirty sols the pound, makes the sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres tournois.”

Franklin then proposed various ways the government could encourage people to rise with the sun, concluding:

Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient?, let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest.

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity; for, ce n’est que le premier pas qui coûte. Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is more than probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening; and, having had eight hours sleep, he will rise more willingly at four in the morning following.
So would Dr. Franklin feel proud of how the U.S. of A. adopted the Daylight Saving Time system that just ended last weekend?

Most likely, our timekeeping methods would take him a while to get used to. In Franklin’s era, the time of day was not standardized nationally. Noon was when the sun was straight overhead wherever you were; people knew noon was slightly different to the east or west, but there was no need for exactitude until railroads came along.

Furthermore, Franklin wrote his letter as a joke. It was a satire on how Parisians stayed up late and slept late. It may also have been a gentle satire of himself, performing his role as the unpretentious American scientist concerned with efficiency and economy. It certainly was not a serious proposal to save 96 million livres.

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