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History: Franklin's summertime fun

August 31, 2018

It was only a a bit of fun that late riser Benjamin Franklin proposed daylight savings in 1784 and for more than two centuries it has been a topic of controversy. Now the EU Commission wants to abolish the clock change.

Image: picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/D. Oliveira

It all started with a joke: because the French got up so badly in the morning, Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical discourse in 1784 about how many candles and money could be saved by changing the time and getting up earlier. In order to achieve this, Paris should tax shutters, ration candles and wake the population in the morning with cannon thunder.

Benjamin Franklin
US founding father, inventor, late riser: Benjamin Franklin.Image: AP

When the 78-year-old wrote this satire, one of the US' founding fathers had already been living in Paris for eight years. As an American delegate he had been able to win the French over as allies in the fight against the British.

Both sides acknowledged the inventor's alert spirit and negotiating skills, althogh Franklin by then was struggling with old age; gout and gallstones tied him to his house in the Parisian suburb of Passy. He was joined there often by good friends such as Antoine Alexis-Francois Cadet de Vaux, editor of the Journal de Paris, who encouraged Franklin, known for his humour, to write short texts on everyday problems.

The discovery of the morning sun

And so Franklin wrote this satire for the Journal de Paris about the economy of lighting in the household, about his own economy and his passion for chess, until the early hours of the morning, which is why Franklin himself slept mostly until noon. Under the title  "An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light", Franklin describes how he awoke one day at 6 am because the shutters had not been closed as usual, and so, to his great surprise, he discovered that the sun was already shining early in the morning. No one wanted to believe his astonishing discovery, although he has tested it several times, Franklin said in an ironic tone. He himself had seen the morning sun with his own eyes, he assured the readers.

Zeitumstellung Sommerzeit
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. J. Hildenbrand

He also calculated the number of candles and lamp oil that could be saved by changing the time: If 100,000 Parisian households let candles burn for seven hours in the summertime, one could save about 64 million pounds of wax. "Paris could save an immense sum every year," enthused the American guest. However, as we know, Parisians are unwilling to change their habits and get up earlier, so drastic measures were necessary.

The Parisians laughed at Franklin's satirical advice and his comments on nightlife and the proposed time change was forgotten. It was not until a hundred years later that two independent scientists proposed a seasonal time shift: in 1895 the New Zealand entomologist and astronomer George Vernon Hudson and in 1907 the British inventor William Willett. In his paper "The Waste of Daylight" Willett proposed to reset watches in summer by 80 minutes in order to save 2.5 million pounds in lighting costs due to the longer brightness. The clocks were to be moved forward by 20 minutes each on four consecutive Sundays in April and back again in the same way in September.

What began with a joke became bitterly serious in times of crisis

Die ersten Panzer C Company
Saving energy as a contribution to war Image: picture-alliance/Mary Evans/Robert Hunt Collectio

Winston Churchill was one of the few to be enthusiastic about the idea, but summertime was not to prevail in Great Britain. Not yet. Only when Germany and Austria-Hungary introduced summer time in 1916, in the middle of the WWI did their war opponents Great Britain and France and other European countries follow suit. The "material battles" of WWI were to be supported by energy savings on summer evenings.

When the war was lost, Germany also abolished the unpopular war relic in 1919; in France, protesting peasants were able to have summer time abolished in 1922. However, it was immediately reintroduced in 1923. Great Britain, on the other hand, was the only country to stick to summer time.

With the start of WWII Germany remembered the idea of saving energy and introduced summertime in 1940. The Berlin calendar also had to apply in the occupied territories. Daylight savings time remained the same when Germany had once again lost the war. In 1947, the Allied Control Council even ordered double summertime, i.e. a deviation of two hours, in order to make better use of daylight. But the regulation only lasted for seven weeks, after which simple daylight savings time applied again. At the end of the war, many European states bade farewell to summertime on a daily basis; in Germany, the annual change of time was then abolished in the founding year of the two German states, and East and West reached rare agreement on this in 1949.

Deutschland schlafende Politiker Angela Merkel
Dates from early to lateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

In Franklin's homeland, on the other hand, things were more confusing: Daylight savings time had already been introduced in the US during WWI and even during WWII the clocks were set one hour ahead to "War Time" all year round. But up to 1966 there was no uniform federal law, i.e. until then it was not decided nationally, but regionally or locally, if and where summertime existed, so that even within a state the clocks could tick differently.

European rag rug

In the years of the post-war economic miracle, there was no longer any talk of saving energy or changing the clocks accordingly. It was not until the 1973 oil shock plunged Europe into a deep crisis and driving bans had to be imposed that people remembered. However, the time change over was only implemented in France, which was the only Western European country to reintroduce summer time in 1976. After a while, other states of the European Community, the predecessor of the EU, followed.

The Federal Republic of Germany, however, hesitated, as it didn't want to further deepen the East-West division with different time zones. In 1979, after a long silence, the GDR surprised the West and announced the introduction of summer time for the following year. From 1980 it applied in both German states. Many neighbouring countries followed suit.

Frau Gähnen Bett
Image: Colourbox

The different daylight saving time regulations were harmonised within the EU in 1996. Since then, it has applied in all EU Member States (except overseas territories) for around 512 million EU citizens and for millions of neighbours in Europe.

So it was not only in the last decades that there was heated debate about the sense or nonsense of a time change. Proponents and opponents have always deployed competing evidence of economic, energetic or health benefits or damage. Following the surprisingly clear vote in the EU-wide online survey, the EU Commission now wants to abolish the unloved time change.

Franklin would no doubt have been tickled to see the turbulence caused by his harmless satire.