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They Didn’t Know What Time It Was
On November 18, 1883, the nation finally settled on the method of synchronizing all clocks that we call standard time. Why did it take so long to figure that one out?
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
The Detroit incident was one of the last, for in 1908 Parliament considered a bill advancing all British clocks an hour during the summer months, and although it eventually was defeated, it gave an unexpected new direction to the talk about time. The Briton who first proposed the idea, William Willett, tried to drum up American support by writing to every member of Congress, few of whom were much interested. But broad press coverage stimulated general debate on the pros and cons of Willett’s summer time, which was quickly dubbed daylight saving.
President Taft, an early convert, publicly urged communities to adopt daylight saving by ordinance, and his hometown of Cincinnati promptly did so. Strong opposition developed elsewhere, however, notably on the editorial pages of The New York Times , where it was ridiculed week after week as “an act of madness. ” We “will have to hear a lot of better arguments than have yet been advanced,” an editorial asserted, “before we join enthusiastically in the naive game of playing that 7 o’clock is 8 or 9.”
The N.Y. Times called daylight savings a “naive game.”
The debate, which continued for almost a decade, was given fresh impetus by America’s entry into the European war in 1917. Germany and Great Britain had adopted summertime daylight saving in 1916 as a means of conserving fuel, and this wartime purpose converted even The New fork Times . The editor warned, however, that it would be effective only if the entire nation was required to advance its clocks uniformly. “And unanimous consent is hard to get, out of the Senate as well as in it.”
The warning was justified; short of congressional fiat, there could be no hope of nationwide compliance. On Nantucket Island a town meeting voted down a daylight-saving ordinance, and Harvard College students rejected the idea by a vote of 689 to 393. But with the strong endorsement of President Wilson, Congress passed a Daylight Saving Act in 1918 and Wilson affixed his signature on March 20—less than two weeks before clocks were to be advanced. Opponents of daylight saving, and rural diehards who clung to “God’s Time,” had lost their fight against “Wilson’s Time.”
In New York City people thronged Madison Square, while at the nearby Aldine Club, Marcus M. Marks, Manhattan’s borough president and the nation’s most energetic campaigner for daylight saving, watched the show outside. At 2:00 A.M. on Sunday, March 31, Marks pushed a button, and the hour hand on the Metropolitan Tower clock moved ahead.
The daylight saving thus welcomed was annulled the very next year, when, with the war ended, conserving fuel no longer seemed essential; nearly half a century would pass before its permanent national adoption in 1966. But the 1918 act contained a clause that at last made standard time official. The members of Congress, in their deliberations, had realized that if all the nation’s clocks were to be advanced for part of the year, the base for the advance had to be uniform, and that called for compliance with standard time, compulsory nationwide.
Even today, sixty-five years after Congress finally imposed standard time on the entire nation, not everybody is altogether happy about daylight saving or about the time-zone boundaries. But everyone can appreciate the irony of standard time becoming official only by riding in tardily on the coattails of daylight saving.