Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

20-11b The End of Days – Thoughts on Daylight Saving Time

Not content with sorting out mere months and weeks in the celestial calendar, the ancients decided to divide up the day too, and the night for that matter, and invented hours. To complicate things further the Romans divided the period of daylight into twelve hours[1], but the length of the day (actual sunlight) varied from month to month, season to season, and even place to place. Twelve hours in December, even in Rome, was considerably less than twelve hours in June. The only thing they could agree on was that midday was the apex of the sun’s traverse across the sky. They called this noon but didn’t assign the number twelve to it until much later. The first minute of the day was the dawn of the sun, so noon would have been hour six by the sundial. It was only later that they made noon twelve. Don’t ask me why.

At some point somebody decided to call the day and the night a whole day and gave it a periodicity of 24 hours, (but not 20). They started putting Roman Numeral XII at the sliver of a shadow at noon on the sundial. (And you may be wondering how the ancient Chinese marked time but I don’t think they knew about Roman numerals; that is research for another day.)

So far so good, even if it’s twelve where you live, that didn’t solve the problem of how do you know what time is it somewhere else; if it’s 12 in Kent, say, what time is it in Land’s End? Did the Archbishop of Canterbury give King Arthur a call and say, ‘Hey, Art, it’s 12 noon on my sundial, what time is it over there in Camelot?’ ‘Why its only 11:54, Your Worship.’ This is a big problem, especially if you are trying to run a railway[2]. The solution, Standard Time! and this was a ‘good thing’

When train travel became more and more common from the middle of the 19thcentury on people needed to know what time the train would arrive and leave from the station. But since nobody could agree as to what time it actually was, how would you know? Even though watches and clocks had been around in some form or other for hundreds of years, setting your watch to the correct time was still a function of the place in the heavens when the sun said noon on your sundial. (And what time it was in the middle of the night was a hopeless thing if the only clock you had was a sundial). But the trouble with telling time by the sun is that, depending on where you were in the world, or even in the country, even a small country such as England, the sun was directly overhead at a different time: Noon in Kent came earlier than noon in Cornwall. It was too confusing to have a train leave Canterbury at 12:00 noon and arrive at Hastings, 30 minutes later and it’s only 12:25, or whatever. Standard time meant that it was the same time all over the country despite what the local sundial said. That’s probably why they invented watches too, because the sundials always gave the wrong time. Now the trains could run on time[3].

So someone came up with the idea that noon in England would be twelve o’clock on the clock, everywhere in England, and it would occur precisely at Greenwich[4]. (Why they didn’t pick Stonehenge is anybody’s guess – it seems a much more practical thing to me as there already was a giant sundial built there.)

But it wasn’t just in England where they wanted to make sure the trains ran on time; so did France, but they didn’t want to be on the same clock as England. Imagine the problem in Canada! Noon in Halifax is quite a lot earlier than noon in Victoria. Everybody had to agree on a common clock. And who was the man who persuaded everybody to get the world synced? (Sorry ladies, it was a man’s world in late 1800s.) Why it was Canada’s own, (well, borrowed), Sir Sanford Fleming. You may know this name because of the college named after him in Peterborough, Ontario, though he never taught there. Sir Sanford was a Scot but lived most of his life in Canada, working mostly for Canadian railway companies; he was nevertheless a tireless advocate for universal time (24 hour clocks) throughout the British Empire with Greenwich designated as ground zero, Greenwich Mean Time[5][6][7]. But twelve o’clock in Greenwich was not 12:00 o’clock everywhere else, it was something else; and for that matter matter in Philippines is not even today, it’s already tomorrow. Talaga. Regardless, Universal [Standard] Time solved a lot of problems. Until someone dreamed up Daylight Saving Time. (And don’t get me started on the mess Einstein made of Time.)

You’d think people would leave things well enough alone but no, somebody thought they had a better idea.

They invented Daylight Saving Time. The illusive ‘they’, probably some obscure scientist or engineer, who had some vague sense we might optimize our experience of longer days during summer, and then what was available to us in the shortening days from October through to March or April. Which is rather ridiculous since we have the same amount of sunlight at 50o latitude regardless of whether you want to call dawn 6:00 am or 5 or 7:00 and dusk, 6:00 pm or 7:00 or 4:00[8]. In December you only get about eight hours of sunlight no matter how much you manipulate the clock.

It turns out ‘they’ actually has a name. There are many a myth involving Benjamin Franklin but him inventing Daylight Saving Time isn’t actually true. He did propose, facetiously, while American Ambassador to France in 1784, that Parisians would be more productive if they arose from their beds earlier in summer with the earlier sunrise, but the first man to propose such a scheme in all seriousness was a displaced Englishman in New Zealand in 1895, an entomologist no less who wanted more time in the evenings after his day job to collect ants. But the idea didn’t take on real application until 1916 when the WWI combatants thought they could save on coal if they started their days earlier in summer. So, we can blame the Germans for this one. Well, not so fast. Since I’m quick to give Canada credit for some things I need to be fair and ascribe blame where deserved too. The first city in the world to use DST was, Port Arthur Ontario in 1908, followed by Orillia Ontario in 1911. What were they thinking? (I wonder what Stephen Leacock had to say about that? Maybe that’s why he titled his book of humourous stories, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.)

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata Ontario

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[1]Why they settled on twelve hours is a mystery to me. Why not ten?

[2]It’s an even bigger problem if it’s a cloudy day and the sun is not casting a shadow on the old sundial, and that would be most of the time n England.

[3]Other countries must have thought standard time was a good thing too as no doubt they all wanted their trains to run on time, but in Italy it took another 90 years to get the trains to run on time thanks to Benito Mussolini.

[4]Now, to complicate things further, since the globe is round (even if we flat earth society members are still questioning that) it has to be midnight half way around the world, and things get really complicated. It’s no longer of a question of losing a few minutes between Kent and Land’s End, it means we end up shifting a whole day. I mean, when you are racing the clock west at some point you arrive at your destination before you left your home base. Makes you yearn for the good old days when nobody ever traveled more than 20 miles from home.

[5]People might assume mean means cruel, especially when we are facing the dark depths of December but mean in this case means average. The average time of all the times of England would be the time at Greenwich, not a minute or two before nor a few minutes after. Had to be the same everywhere or the trains would be early, or late, depending on where in England your sundial was. I know, it’s more arbitrary than mathematical but hey, they needed to make a deal. Getting France to agree was the really big deal.

[6]Turns out it’s not even 12:00 noon on the dot in Greenwich either half the time.

[7]Purists will jump on me and inform me that there may have been others who dreamed up and advocated for universal standard time long before Sir Sanford Fleming, but hey, I’m flying our flag today.

[8]But that begs another question. Who decided morning started at 8:00 am (or 7:00 if you insist), and evening began sometime around 6:00. Where did this working 9 – 5’ come from?

1 thought on “20-11b The End of Days – Thoughts on Daylight Saving Time”

  1. David Bradley

    Absolutely brilliant. Let’s hear it for Canada! Certainly one of your wittiest, educative and entertaining pieces so far. Your ability to ’tilt the world on its axis’ is second to none. Thank you.

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