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Humans

Benjamin Franklin Or Bug Collector? Daylight Saving Time's Bizarre Origins

author

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMar 16 2022, 17:26 UTC
One popular tale has it that Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea as a joke.

One popular tale has it that Benjamin Franklin came up with the idea as a joke. Image credit: Enessa Varnaeva/shutterstock.com

Daylight saving time may come to an end in the US in 2023, following a unanimous vote in the Senate. But how did the idea come about?

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One popular tale is that Benjamin Franklin thought up daylight saving time as a joke. While living in France, Franklin wrote a satirical essay, published in the Journal de Paris. In the piece, the future president suggests that Paris should be forcibly awoken at sunrise to make the most of daylight hours and natural light, saving vast sums of money on candles.

"First. Let a tax be laid of a [gold coin] per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun," he wrote in the essay, advising strict enforcement.

"Second. Let guards be placed in the shops of the wax and tallow chandlers, and no family be permitted to be supplied with more than one pound of candles per week. Third. Let guards also be posted to stop all the coaches, etc. that would pass the streets after sunset, except those of physicians, surgeons, and midwives."

"Fourth. Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient? Let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest."

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The essay is real – but the idea that Benjamin Franklin suggested daylight savings time as a joke in 1784, sadly, is not. Though the principle of making people adjust their schedules to enjoy more daylight hours (on pain of taxes and guard confrontation) was there, it was proposed in jest at a time when proper timekeeping and schedules had not yet taken off in Europe, and was not intended as a proper daylight savings time system.

The real invention of the idea was down to an entomologist who, in 1895, wanted more spare time to collect insects. George Vernon Hudson was frustrated that his day job left little daylight hours for him to go collect his bugs. His solution, rather than talking to his employer about his hours, was to propose a two-hour daylight savings time for New Zealand, where he lived.

The proposal argued that the money lost for energy and gas companies would be made up for by benefits to people, who would be able to spend more time in nature and experiencing the fresh air.

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"The effect of this alteration would be to advance all the day's operations in summer two hours compared with the present system," he wrote. "In this way the early-morning daylight would be utilised, and a long period of daylight leisure would be made available in the evening for cricket, gardening, cycling, or any other outdoor pursuit desired."

At first, his idea was mocked, before catching on.

The idea was independently thought of a few years later by William Willett, a golfer who didn't like having his evening round cut short by his nemesis: the night. Willett was a passionate advocate for utilizing the daylight hours, having spent many mornings riding to work in daylight while most of London lay asleep. 

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"Standard time remains so fixed, that for nearly half the year the sun shines upon the land, for several hours a day, while we are asleep," he wrote in a pamphlet on his own proposal, which he distributed at his own cost. "And is rapidly nearing the horizon, having already passed its western limit, when we reach home after the work of the day is over." 

Willett explicitly argued that the change would save the public money on gas, oil, and electricity, as well as the benefits more daylight would have on the population and their health. Willett lobbied for the idea for the rest of his life, gaining support from the Liberal Party, but it did not pass into law until after his death.


Humans
  • daylight saving time,

  • science and society

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