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- Published on Amazon.com
Around 1965 when my friends and I would go to the movies, along with the previews of coming attractions, we would be treated to a polemical short film designed to teach us the evils of Daylight Saving Time. "Do you want to lose an hour of sleep every night?" boomed the self-important voice, as a cartoon illustration of a red-eyed man appeared on the screen. "Do you want your children staying out after bedtime because it is still light?" My buddies and I thought it funny at the time to answer back "No!" to the first question and "Yes!" to the second. We did not know it at the time, but were doing our small part to continue a storm of controversy and puzzlement over clock-shifting. In _Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time_ (Shoemaker & Hoard), Michael Downing has given a sprightly history of a peculiarity in timekeeping that has pleased and bothered people ever since it was first seriously proposed for action. You might think that the only confusion that DST causes is for people who forget on the appointed night to change their clocks, or our surprise in the first week over how high the sun seems compared to the nights before the change. The truth is that there is much more confusion to go around on an issue that you probably thought was simple.
The US adopted DST in 1918, but repealed it just a year later; the repeal was sparked by protests by farmers, who were among the first, though certainly not the last, to insist on a return to what they viewed as "God's time." How God came to divide the day into twenty-four hours, however, they did not clarify. The influence of farmers, however, could not compete with that of Wall Street, which liked the idea since it meant that there would be a one hour window in the morning when both the New York Exchange and the London Exchange were open simultaneously, permitting exploitation of prices during those sixty minutes. In fact, the New York Exchange so missed the lucrative hour when DST was repealed that it put itself on DST just for trading hours. Exchanges in Boston and Philadelphia did not want to lose out, so they followed suit, small islands of anomalous time within the nation. The patchwork coverage of DST and the attempted legal patches to make it all sensible resulted in timely confusion. If you drove the 35 miles from Steubenville, Ohio, to Moundsville, West Virginia, and wanted your watch to keep the local time, you would have to change it seven times on the route. In St. Paul, Minnesota, there was an eighteen-story office building with nine floors on DST and nine floors not.
From time to time, like during wars, DST was promoted as the patriotic thing to do, since it saved energy, but this has not conclusively been shown. Some think there are good scientific reasons for DST, but there is no science behind it. What powers DST in a small way is emotion; most people simply like the long summer evenings (and Downing admits that he is one of these). I like it because it shows the arbitrary nature of timekeeping; we can shift hours just as we can (or could, if we wanted to) shift from feet to meters. The biggest force, though, is economic. Wall Street likes it, and that's important, but there were significant gains for specific industries. Sales of golf equipment and course fees go up in DST, and so do sales of barbecue equipment, and seeds and gardening supplies. Farmers still don't like it, but there are fewer and fewer of them to complain. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of people (and businesses like movie studios) that don't like it, and although we have relative standardization in its implementation now, there are still attempts to tinker with it. Falsifying clock time in America has become "the most sustained political controversy of the last 100 years," says Downing. His often hilarious book shows that the controversy isn't going to go away any time soon.