It’s about time

9 mins read
Workers repair the clock on the Franklin County Courthouse earlier this year.

We’re back to Standard Time this weekend, an event our wrist watches, TVs, and other personal appurtenances will be trying to get used to. It’s a transition that has been rendered a bit more difficult because the date on which it occurs has itself changed a number of “times” in modern cultural history.

Sorting out the change is a bit easier, however, if one takes a look to see how we arrived at the time regime in which we live today.

Though the twice a year changes to and from Daylight Savings may seem a bit disorienting, it’s not as disruptive as the time system we once had. Before 1883, all time America kept was far more localized. Since solar rays arrived in Bangor four minutes before they do in Portland, the time observed at the present home of Stephen King would be that much ahead of the city where Longfellow learned to walk.

Emergence of railroad use in the 19th century forced a change to a more uniform system. During the era of Lincoln, Grant and Garfield, millions of passengers, whether making the trip from Presque Isle to Lewiston or from St. Louis to San Francisco, had little way of accurately determining whether they would be late or on time, such was the impossibility of deciphering the complex schedules that attempted to sort out the minute by minute zones as they applied to arrival and departure times at each junction.

A railroad sponsored commission in November 1883 tried to bring order out of the chaos. It created the four zone U.S. system. Though not yet officially sanctioned by federal law, the new system won wide acceptance.

It was against this background that by the second decade of the 20th century, we first moved to Daylight Savings Time. This was driven by a need to save on fuel and other energy costs. The First World War was an additional impetus. Following Great Britain’s lead, America passed laws putting the clocks ahead during most of the year. Thus was born Daylight Savings Time or “DST.”

By 1919, after the end of the War, Congress then left it up to state and local governments to set the clocks and whether to observe Daylight Savings Time.

In 1925, the Maine legislature officially put the state into the Eastern Standard Time zone. Popular consensus was difficult to achieve, however, and it was only by a 34,000 to 28,000 vote that the law survived a People’s Veto referendum move to override it. Many Mainers still wished to preserve some of their 19th century local autonomy on the issue. Some of the more religious also refused to change what they regarded as “God’s time.”

Between the two world wars, the issue of whether to “go on fast time,” as Daylight Savings was called, also became one of the most heated questions at some town meetings in Maine. Chief among those against the change then – as now – were farmers. They complained that the added evening daylight was offset by an hour of prolonged darkness in the morning, a key time for milking cows and other agricultural chores.

By the 1930s, most Maine localities favored the summer time change to Daylight Savings but there was still no consensus. A 1933 town meeting in Farmington favored the change to “Fast Time” by a mere four votes, 276 to 272.

Advent of another world war provoked further change when Congress mandated Daylight Savings throughout the year until the War’s end in 1945. After that, the nation reverted to the pre-war local option system. It wasn’t until 1966 that Congress came on the scene again and decreed a more uniform Daylight Savings observance.

After the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo Congress extended DST to 10 months in 1974. Just a year later, opposition from farming states and a subsiding energy crisis spurned it to shorten DST to eight months. By the end of the decade it reverted to the six month tenure. School bus stop fatalities of children unaccustomed to the hazards of early morning darkness were also a factor in restoring standard time to more of the school year.

By 1986, Maine’s own George Mitchell successfully pushed for a change in DST that moved up its advent from the last Sunday in April to its first.

Congress put into effect the present system in 2007. That’s when the start of DST was moved up by another three weeks to the second Sunday in March and its end was extended by another week, from the last Sunday in October to the first Sunday in November.

Just last year the Maine House passed a bill that reflected continuing restlessness over our present time keeping system. The measure, approved on an 85 to 59 vote, would have placed Maine into Atlantic time, the same as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, putting us in effect into a year round Daylight Savings Time. Though the law would only have gone into effect if both Massachusetts and New Hampshire enacted the same change, it did not get by the Senate.

Advocates of this change have just this past summer, however, met with greater success in Florida. Only a few weeks ago it overwhelmingly passed a bill that would move nearly the entire Sunshine state into Atlantic time. It’s not effective, however, until Congress approves it since an entire zone change requires federal ratification, something Washington does not seem eager to bestow.

As in the 1920s, opposition to Daylight Savings is sometimes founded on religious precepts. In Israel, some Orthodox Jews have urged its repeal because of the impact it has on certain early morning prayers they recite during Elul, their last month of the year.

From a secular standpoint, the DST system is a trade-off that swaps a later start of the day for a later ending. It tends to synchronize daylight a bit more closely with most work place and personal schedules and thus tends to save energy costs. For commuting workers and most other travelers it does mean more daylight in the later afternoon, when they are most likely to be burdened with fatigue. But the public education system has an earlier start and ending schedule than those of the workplace. For too much DST is a threat to the early morning safety of commuting students – unless as some have advocated the school start time is itself moved ahead. It also can disrupt agriculture.

The extent to which early morning hours will be “ours” is of course a matter that only time can tell. We shall see.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net

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