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The Elbert Files: Saving daylight


I thought all the talk about year-round daylight saving time was much ado about nothing, until I met my friend K.C. just off the sidewalk near Terrace Hill on Grand Avenue.

I say off the sidewalk because much of the paved walkway along Grand Avenue in front of Iowa’s 19th-century governor’s mansion is becoming unusable. Following installation last year of a security fence on the hill above the sidewalk, heavy rains washed down loose soil, creating a muddy mess on the walkway.

Sections are so bad that pedestrians now walk on the spongy grass between the sidewalk and the street. On really wet days, they risk getting splashed by careless drivers who speed through pools of water alongside the curb.

Anyway, when I told K.C. what I thought about the proposals for permanent daylight saving time, he said, “You might think it’s much ado about nothing, but it’s really a reflection of how far we’ve come.

“Did you know Benjamin Franklin invented daylight saving time as a way to conserve candles?” he asked.

“People say his proposal was tongue-in-cheek, but in 1784, Franklin wrote a long letter to the Journal of Paris calculating how much candle wax could be saved by setting clocks ahead one hour for six months of the year. 

“He even suggested that time changes be heralded with church bells and canons to wake up people and encourage them to get with the program.”

“I did not know that,” I replied.

“Nobody remembers it, because it was satire, a joke,” K.C. said. 

“There was no such thing as standardized time back then. That didn’t happen until the 19th century when the railroads recognized that if everyone was using the same time, it might keep trains from running into each other.

“Train wrecks were a big problem before 1884 when standardized time zones were created,” he noted.

“The concept of daylight saving time resurfaced at the end of the 19th century as a way to save energy, and according to one London businessman, as a way to give golfers one more hour of sunlight to finish rounds at the end of the day,” he explained.

“But it really caught on in 1916 when Germany introduced it as a way to conserve coal during World War I. Then it was like dominoes. The Brits got onboard, and by the end of the war so was nearly everyone else, including the United States.

“After the war, the popularity of daylight saving time faded, until it made a comeback in World War II. 

“It’s been pretty much a constant since then, although there was a period in the 1950s when it was a local-option choice. In Iowa, some cities had daylight saving time and others stayed on standard time. 

“It really was a mess until 1966 when Congress voted to make daylight time the rule for six months of the year from March to September. 

“The starting and ending dates have moved around since then. And there was a brief period in the 1970s when it was year-round because of fuel shortages related to the Arab oil embargo.

“For the most part, though, it’s been spring forward and fall back ever since you and I were in short pants,” K.C. said. 

“The thing that’s interesting now is that it was always rural America that was most opposed to daylight saving time. 

“There were a variety of reasons for that, but for the most part it boiled down to the fact that people living in industrialized cities wanted an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day to play golf or mow the yard or whatever needed to be done after they got off work. Farmers, who worked from sunup to sunset, didn’t.

“But now the push, at least in Iowa, is coming from lawmakers in rural areas. 

“I suppose that says something about culture change, or at least about the industrialization of agriculture,” K.C. said as he headed toward the setting sun.


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