Ben Franklin and Daylight Saving Time

March is the month when we set our clocks forward and begin to enjoy longer evenings. It’s called Daylight Saving Time (in the US) or British Summer Time (in the UK). In the olden days, people just adjusted their schedules based on sunrise and sunset. But by the twentieth century people had become so dependent on time schedules, that it was just easier to change the clocks. 

In Spring 1916, during the First World War, Germany moved its clocks forward an hour for more daylight hours to help with coal shortages. The UK soon followed suit, and the US did the same two years later. Since then, we’ve been adjusting our clocks forward in Spring and back in Autumn.

Ben Franklin didn’t exactly argue for Daylight Saving Time, but he did advocate adjusting our schedules to the sun.  In 1784 Benjamin Franklin was United States Minister to France, living in Paris. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris explaining the benefits of adjusting our schedule to that of the sun. It’s very tongue-in-cheek as he is lightly mocking the Parisian way of life.

I’ve paraphrased parts of it below:

Dear Sirs,

I’m writing to inform you and your readers that I have made an amazing new discovery which will be very useful to one and all.

It started the other evening when I was at a party. A discussion began about the cost of the new oil lamps and whether they actually saved any money in the lighting of our apartments. No one seemed to have the answer. I love thriftiness and I was pleased to see everyone else taking such an interest. 

The party ended and I went home. I got into bed at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and I was still pondering the subject of saving money on lighting our homes as I fell asleep. Then, about 6:00 in the morning, I was awakened by a loud noise. When I opened my eyes, I was surprised to see my room filled with light. At first I thought it was filled with those new oil lamps that I had seen the night before. But I rubbed my eyes and saw that the light was coming from the windows. As I peered outside, I saw the sun rising above the horizon and pouring light into my room. My servant had forgotten to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 6:00. I was amazed that the sun had risen so early. I looked at my almanac and saw that was exactly the time it was predicted to rise. I looked at the next few days and saw that the sun rose progressively earlier every day toward the end of June. And the latest the sun ever rose was 8:00.

I’m sure your readers, who like me have never seen the sun before noon, will be as astonished as I was when they learn that the sun rises so early. And especially to know that the sun gives light as soon as it rises. Yet, it’s true. I saw it with my own eyes. And just to make sure, I repeated this experiment the three following mornings and every day, the results were the same.

This unusual experience has caused me to reflect. If I had not been awakened by that noise, I would have risen at noon as is my habit. That means that I would have slept six hours while the sun was shining and, consequently, I would have spent six hours the following evening by candle light. I realized that since candle light is much more expensive than sunlight, the city of Paris could save a great deal every year just by taking advantage of the free sunlight.

Of course, you might argue that people are attached to their routines and would refuse to rise before noon. However, I believe that everyone possessed of common sense, as soon as they have read this paper and discovered that it is daylight as soon as the sun rises, will decide to rise with it. 

And for those without common sense, I propose the following measures: First, tax every window that has shutters to keep the sun out. Second, place guards in the shops that sell candles and set a limit of one pound of candles per family per week. Third, place guards in the streets to stop all traffic after sunset other than doctors and midwives. Fourth, ring all the church bells every morning at sunrise. And for those who still refuse to rise, let a cannon be fired in every street to rouse them from their beds.

It will only take a few days for people to get into the routine. After that, it will seem perfectly natural. If you wake someone at 4:00 in the morning, it’s likely that he will willingly go to bed at 8:00 in the evening. Then after eight hours of sleep, he will more willingly get up at 4:00 the next morning.

I am freely giving my knowledge of this great discovery to the public. I’m not asking for fame, compensation or any other reward whatsoever. I would only like the honor of being acknowledged as the discoverer. And yet, I know that there are those who are envious and will deny me this. They will say that my discovery was known by the ancients and they might even provide passages from old books as proof.

I won’t argue with them. Perhaps the ancients did know at what hour the sun rose. But that does not mean they knew that it gave light as soon as it rose. This is what I claim as my discovery. If the ancients did know it, it has long since been forgotten, because it is certainly unknown to the Parisians.

The Parisians are an educated, wise, and discerning people. And they, like me, profess to love thriftiness. They must pay (necessary) heavy taxes to the State and have every reason to want to save money. In my opinion, it would be impossible for such a sensible group of people, in these circumstances, to live so long by the smoky, unwholesome, and enormously expensive light of candles, if they knew that they could have as much light as they wanted for free.

A Subscriber

Image Sources: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4, Image 5, Image 6

Original text here

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Margo Lestz

Author of four books about France who enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

8 comments

  1. You are always so clever to let us know about all these interesting stories. Which I love. Thank you!!

  2. Another wonderful piece of research, Margo. Interesting that Benjamin Franklin was not proposing fiddling with the clocks, just taking advantage of natural light. It is interesting that current research is showing detrimental effects on our health caused by the 6 monthly adjustment to the clocks, so that the EU is considering eliminating it.
    In Australia, we have a ridiculous situation where not all the States do ‘Daylight Saving’ and one that does uses different start and finish dates. This means that from 3 time zones in the 6 months in the middle of the year, we have 7 in ‘Summer Time’ and 8 for a short time! Totally crazy.

    1. Oh my goodness – that sounds confusing! I think there is only one state in the US that does’t change time.
      The UK and the US have also had discussions about either eliminating Daylight Saving Time (British Summer Time) or else keeping it all year. I know people in northern Europe get the short end of the stick on daylight hours.
      For me, I love the long, light summer evenings that BST brings, and I hate the short winter evenings when we go back to regular time. So, I would probably be happy to keep BST all year round.

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