“This time, it’s different”
History goes in cycles, over and over, to the point where it’s sort of boring.
One of the cycles is the way governments and long-lived organizations unite to fight change. It involves pronouncements in the halls of Congress, lobbying by entrenched industries, outspoken demonstrations by fringe religious groups ostensibly representing the masses, controversial court decisions and most important, pronouncements that "this changes everything", "it’s the end of the world as we know it," "this goes against God’s will," and my favorite, "sure there are cycles, but this one is different."
I’m in the middle of Seize the Daylight : The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time. An odd topic for a book, something to read after you’ve read Salt and Cod, but still fascinating.
Here are some things worth noting about the evolution of DST:
"Invented" by Ben Franklin
but not really, because in 1444, the walled city of Basel was about to be attacked. There were infidels outside, and some had infiltrated the town. The guards caught some of the bad guys and heard that the attack was to begin precisely at noon. An alert sentry changed the clock in the square an hour. Brilliant! The insiders, unaided by their allies, started their diversion an hour early. They were all arrested.
But i digress. This book makes you do that.
Lobbying for DST started in earnest about 100 years ago. (Only 80 years after time was standardized–before trains, it didn’t really matter that the time was different in different towns.) It if hadn’t been for the need to save energy during WWI, it never would have been instituted–the forces against change refused to accept how much money would be saved (turns out it is millions and millions of dollars a year, probably billions by now) and were against it in general principle.
Sir William Christie, Astronomer Royal, called DST nothing but special legislation for late risers (ah, the moral failing card).
Sir William Napier Shaw, director of the Meteorological office said, "To alter the prsent mode of measuring time would be to kill a goose that lays a very valuable egg."
Nature magazine said, "The advance from local to the standard time of today was a step well thought out, and one that cannot be reversed by the introduction of a new and really nondescript time under the old name."
The Secretary of the London Stock Exchange, Mr. Satterthwaite said the bill would, "Create a dislocation of Stock Exchange business in the chief business centre of the world."
Of course, many reactionaries with nothing concrete to say merely mocked William Willet, the chief proponent of the change. Nature wondered if his next trick was going to be to redefine the thermometer so that in the winter it would be 42 degrees instead of 32.
The theatre owners united (RIAA flashback!) and worked hard to defeat the bill, saying that if it weren’t dark at night, their business would be completely decimated.
Year after year, the bill failed to pass in the UK. In the US the story was much the same.
The New York Times wrote, this is, "little less than an act of madness."
[more soon] later [okay, now it’s soon…]
My very favorite quote of all comes from Mississippi.
"Repeal the law and have the clocks proclaim God’s time and tell the truth!" That comes from Congressman Ezekiel Candler, Jr.
And Harry Hull of Iowa said, "When we passed the law, we tried to ‘put one over’ on Mother Nature, and when you try to improve the natural laws it usually ends in disaster."
After the law passed, there were court battles everywhere. Battles over state vs. federal jurisdiction, for example.
Just something to think about the next time an emergency over takes our culture… something that threatens the status quo that must be vanquished before it ends in disaster.