It is relatively easy to determine noon at any point on the earth. It is the time at which the sun is highest in the sky. Of course, this means that noon occurs at different times at different longitudes. Roughly speaking—we needn’t concern ourselves with the “roughly” business here—we can divide the period between two successive noons in the same place into 24 intervals, each of which represents an hour of the day. This is all well and good, but this system of timekeeping has the consequence that even places that are close to one another have clocks that do not agree.
In the nineteenth century, the variability in local time was giving railroads fits. Individual railroads “solved” the problem by using the time in one location as the time for all stations on its line. I need hardly explain how this could be confusing, particularly when a given town was served by two or more railroads.
In 1883, U.S. and Canadian railroads agreed to create standard time zones. The standard time in any zone would be the same throughout the zone, and the time in adjacent zones would be exactly one hour earlier or one hour later. This system was codified in law by Congress in 1918. Only at the (longitudinally approximate) center of a time zone would solar noon and standard noon correspond. We were fooling with Mother Nature a bit, but it was for a good cause. Commerce and life generally were much simplified by the adoption of standard time.
Then there is the matter of daylight saving time. It, too, was enacted by Congress in 1918. It has become nearly universal in the U.S., though there are notable exceptions, such as the state of Hawaii. The times that we “spring forward” and “fall back” have changed from time to time, but now, most of the country is on daylight saving time for longer than it is on standard time.
Various rationales have been advanced in favor of daylight saving time, most of them questionable. The ecological argument that the procedure saves energy seems either wrong or insignificant. I have heard that farmers favor changing our clocks, but this, too, is bogus. (Try explaining daylight saving time to a cow.) The main lobby for continuing to observe daylight saving time is commercial interests, particularly the recreation industry. (A golf club or amusement park gains little from an earlier sunrise but may benefit greatly from an extra hour of daylight in the evening.)
I have always been skeptical as to the benefits of daylight saving time. In my post “More Haiku” I wrote, in 2001,
Clocks are set forward,
But we do not ask where goes
The daylight we save.
The relevant question is really where goes the sleep we lose. It is well-documented that the spring time change results in more accidents and more heart attacks than usual. Invariably, people walk into church late after the spring change, and, no doubt, confusion occurs elsewhere. Most people hate the time transitions daylight saving time requires. This dissatisfaction has lead to a widespread movement to eliminate the biannual time changes, a reform that would have to come from Congress.
Unfortunately, most of the agitation for a change in daylight saving time is for making it apply throughout the entire year! Doing this would be surrendering to the commercial interests that want us to spend more time and money during summer evenings, even if it means that children will be waiting for school buses or walking to school in the dark.
Well, it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, and the benefits of daylight saving time are questionable, at best. We should return to year-round standard time. It isn’t quite what Mother Nature intended, but it’s close enough.