The Invention of Time and Its Effects, Part II

Last week, I discussed the development of time zones, and their necessity as the speed of communications changed how individuals interacted with the wider world. This week, I will examine attempts to modify our concepts of time, in particular, the development of Daylight Savings Time policies and their economic effects. Next week, I’ll talk about the manipulation of time in the twenty-first century, and how it influences the behavior of powerful nations and international corporations.

Prior to attempts to standardize time, most American citizens largely performed their daily tasks following a rudimentary solar clock—meaning they started their work at or near sunrise, and they worked until sundown. In an agrarian society, this made perfect sense—the majority of agrarian production is carried out during the periods of greatest sunlit hours (the summer), and hence, there was more work to be done in the warmer seasons. Of course, animal husbandry does not follow such a rhythm, but planting, tending, and harvesting all closely followed the solar calendar. However, as industrialization brought more workers into centralized production areas, it became increasingly necessary to standardize their starting and stopping times—merely expecting workers to show up in accordance with the rising sun, and paying them a daily wage, proved impractical, particularly in the production of goods requiring cooperation between the workers.

Although U.S. railroads essentially imposed time zones upon the nation as early as 1883, the federal government did not settle upon a national approach to the regulation of time until more than three decades had passed. In 1914, Europe became embroiled in the Great War, a cataclysmic struggle pitting the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) against the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire). In 1916, Germany adopted a daylight savings measure, in part to assist in maintaining industrial output despite shortages of coal. By adjusting the official time to allow the utilization of natural light for the maximum number of factory hours, the German government hoped to reduce the need to provide artificial lighting, preserving coal for other uses. The rest of the major belligerents soon followed suit. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the federal government finally began to take the concept of standardized time seriously, passing the Standard Time Act in 1918. The act authorized the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to define each time zone, and also provided a daylight savings plan for the duration of the war. Not surprisingly, the ICC essentially followed the time zones already created by the railroads, bowing to the obvious necessity of maintaining continuity with existing practices. In 1919, the daylight savings provisions of the Standard Time Act were repealed, over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, reverting the US back to a yearlong standard system of time zones.

In 1942, war once again triggered a federal enactment of daylight savings time. On January 20, 1942, the War Time Act created year-round daylight savings provisions, once again with the intention of preserving energy resources and maximizing industrial output in support of the war effort. However, rather than designating a time zone as either Standard or Daylight savings (for example, New York would operate under Eastern Standard Time—EST—and Eastern Daylight Time—EDT), the provision placed each time zone into a “War” category (meaning New York lived according to Eastern War Time). In September 1945, as the war came to a close, the war time zones were abolished, and the nation reverted to four standard time zones. However, some localities chose to enact their own daylight savings adjustments, creating a substantial amount of chaos at the regional level, as some remained on the standard time. One oft-cited example illustrates the point: a bus driver operating the route from Moundsville, WV to Steubenville, OH, a mere 35-mile journey, had to adjust his watch 7 times along the route if he wished to have it correct in every location. Not surprisingly, it was the powerful transportation industry that demanded a more standardized system, just as had been the case in the 1880s.

In 1966, the federal government again addressed the issue of standardizing time zones, though the passage of the Uniform Time Act. It ordered all states and localities to observe standard time zones, including daylight savings adjustments. States that passed new laws exempting their entire state from the Uniform Time Act were authorized to do so, and five (Alaska, Arizona, Hawai’i, Indiana, and Michigan) did so, meaning those states did not observe daylight savings time. Subsequently, Alaska, Indiana, and Michigan modified their state laws and now observe the annual adjustments. Arizona and Hawai’i are thus the only states to remain on standard time all year, although the Navajo Nation in Arizona chooses to follow daylight savings. The official start dates of daylight savings time have been adjusted multiple times, often at the insistence of lobbying groups who tend to face little opposition to their proposals.

Strangely, there have been almost no recent rigorous studies to examine whether daylight savings laws actually provide the economic benefit that most proponents assume they offer. In 2007, the timing of daylight savings was adjusted, with the commencement on the second Sunday in March and the completion on the first Sunday in November. Much of the justification for that expansion centered around a 1970s Department of Energy study that argued each day of observation of daylight savings saved the nation approximately 10,000 barrels of oil. However, despite the assumption that daylight savings results in energy savings, and thus has economic benefits, there is little evidence to support that assertion. Rather, daylight savings seems primarily driven by a desire to maximize the hours of sunlight available to citizens after traditional working hours have ended—and the opportunity to spend more time outside during the warmer months might be sufficient justification without any consideration of economic benefits.

Next week, I will offer some analysis of how time zones, and the very concept of time itself, have been used as a political tool by various nations over the millennia of human civilization. Readers might be surprised to discover just how much effort has gone into controlling the essence of the fourth dimension, and how successful rulers have manipulated time for their own ends.