Benjamin Franklin and Daylight Savings Time
Benjamin Franklin is one of the most beloved Founding Fathers of the United States. His laundry list of professions includes politician, author, printer, political theorist, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. The document you see here signed by Benjamin Franklin comes from his time as the President of Pennsylvania, just one of the many important titles Franklin held during his life. As an inventor, Franklin was on the cutting edge of technology, and always thinking of new ways to improve day-to-day life for the common man. He’s credited with the discovery of electricity, and even invented bifocals! It’s safe to say that without Benjamin Franklin, our lives today would be very, very different.
However, when you hear the phrase “daylight savings time”, Benjamin Franklin’s name probably isn’t the first thought that pops into your head. It’s more likely that this phrase conjures up some dread about lost sleep, or perhaps excitement for the long summer nights ahead of us that we gain from giving up an hour of our time in early spring. So how does daylight savings time, which wasn’t implemented in the U.S. until 1918, have anything to do with a Founding Father who died more than a century before it even started?
To answer that question, we must go back a few hundred years to 1784. Benjamin Franklin was spending his golden years in Paris as an ambassador to France and was beginning to feel the effects of his age. At 78 years old, his mind was still intact, but his physical health made leaving his house rather hard. Luckily Franklin’s highly social personality meant he had many Parisian friends to visit him at his home and keep him from getting lonely when he couldn’t make it out of the house. One of these friends was Antoine Alexis-Francois Cadet de Vaux, the editor of the Journal de Paris, who encouraged Franklin to keep his mind sharp by solving simple problems and drafting ideas for new inventions. It was after this suggestion that Franklin drafted an entertaining satirical essay proposing a solution for the high costs of lighting a home in the evening; simply begin the day earlier!
Franklin wrote his essay in the form of an anonymous letter to the editor of the Journal de Paris. In his letter, Franklin poses as an average Parisian citizen and states that he was motivated to write this letter out of his love for the economy. The letter has a very humorous tone, and begins with the anonymous citizen sharing some shocking news; he discovered that the sun rises at 6 in the morning! The night before this discovery the anonymous citizen had attended a presentation where two inventors were showing off their new invention of an oil lamp. At this presentation, someone inquired as to whether or not the light the lamp provided was worth the cost of the oil to light it. After this question was brought up there was some general discussion amongst the group about the cost of lighting a home. This anonymous citizen, who loves frugality, went home and pondered this question until three or four in the morning. He planned to rise around noon, which he points out is rather common for Parisians, but at six in the morning a loud noise startled him awake and he noticed that the sun was already up! The night before his servant had forgotten to close the shutters, and the anonymous citizen was flabbergasted to discover the sun shining at such an early hour! Upon this discovery, he jumped out of bed and grabbed his almanac, and after flipping through the entire booklet found that not only did the sunrise at six that morning, but it rose that early every morning! Excited about his discovery, he quickly decided to share the news with his fellow Parisians who were just as shocked to learn how early the sun rose. This anonymous citizen, with his love for the economy, proposes that Parisian families can save a significant amount of money on candles and lamp oil if they rise earlier and use sunshine for light, rather than staying up late and using expensive artificial sources of light. He even writes out some extensive calculations which show how much money is to be saved if Parisians began going to bed earlier and rising with the sun. To ensure that every citizen begins to follow this new routine, the anonymous citizen proposes some regulations that the French government can implement to encourage Parisians to fall in line with the new schedule. First, he states that a tax should be levied on all window shutters, this way people would be discouraged from shutting the sunlight out and sleeping late into the afternoon. Secondly, he proposes rationing candles to one pound per week so that families become more economical in their decisions to burn candles late into the night. Third, he suggests a city-wide curfew that would not allow any coaches driving through the streets after sunset, unless they were driven by a doctor or surgeon making a house call to an ailing patient. And finally, he suggests ringing the church bells every morning at sunrise to ensure that all Parisians awake on time. He goes even further, by stating that if some people are still slow to rise early in the morning that cannons could be fired in the street to wake even the heaviest of sleepers. He concludes his letter by admitting that this schedule will be difficult to adjust to for a few days, but after a while, Parisians will get used to rising early, and the benefits will greatly outweigh the short period of discomfort. By getting everyone to rise earlier, less candles will be consumed by people staying up late into the night, and candle prices will continually get cheaper as the demand for candles decreases and the supply of tallow and candle-wax increases.
Although Franklin was clearly joking in his essay, this idea was not completely forgotten, and over a hundred years later serious talks about how to implement daylight savings time began in different places all over the world. In 1895 a New Zealander named George Hudson presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society which called for a two hour “daylight-saving shift” in the summer to give shift workers more leisure time in the evenings. There was general interest in Hudson’s idea, but the idea was not implemented. In 1907 William Wellet, a London builder was the first person to seriously advocate in Parliament for a modern version of daylight savings time. In his pamphlet “Waste of Daylight” he proposed that clocks should be advanced by 20 minutes every Sunday in April, and then every Sunday in September the clocks would be slowed down by the same amount to make summer nights longer, and winter days shorter. Thankfully Wellet didn’t mention anything about taxing shutters or firing cannons into the street! His idea was received with mixed responses of support and opposition by British Parliament, and sadly Wellet passed before he ever saw daylight savings time take effect in England. In 1916 The German Empire became the first country to practice daylight savings time, with Russia and the rest of Europe largely following suit the next year. The United States adopted a daylight savings time policy in 1918, although it was largely abandoned during the World Wars only to be re-adopted during the 1970s.
Sadly, Benjamin Franklin did not stick around France long enough to see daylight savings time be implemented in Europe. A year after writing his famous satirical letter, he returned to the United States and was elected President of Pennsylvania, a position similar to what we now know as a governor. This interest certificate, dated October 19, 1785, was signed by Franklin just one day after taking office. The purpose of this document was to authorize the Pennsylvania Treasurer to pay an outstanding balance with interest, much like a modern-day invoice.
Even though Benjamin Franklin is not the true inventor of daylight savings time, some of the themes addressed in his satirical letter are still echoed in the reasons we follow daylight savings time today; people enjoy more daylight in the summertime, and more sunlight means people can save some money on their electricity bills!
Full Text of Franklin’s Letter:
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