Benjamin Franklin’s Daylight Saving Time joke is taken seriously
I have written about Daylight Saving Time in the past, and since we’re about to start Daylight Saving Time here in (portions of) the United States, it’s fitting to look at the practice.
The idea behind Daylight Saving Time, of course, is to provide more light in the evening, allowing people to save energy.
However, the idea of shifting clocks to save energy isn’t a 20th century invention. The idea was originally raised by Benjamin Franklin in 1784. Franklin’s essay begins by describing an evening with friends in Paris. After he returned home:
I went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight…. An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.
Despite Franklin’s vast learning, he professed surprise at this:
Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result.
Franklin then observed that if Parisians were to conduct their affairs by sunlight rather than candlelight, immense amounts of energy could be saved. Sound familiar?
But how do you get people to change their hours of waking and sleeping? Those who worship the Founding Fathers as guardians of our freedom will be disappointed by Franklin’s proposal:
First. Let a tax be laid of a louis per window, on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.
Second. Let the same salutary operation of police be made use of, to prevent our burning candles, that inclined us last winter to be more economical in burning wood; that is, 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, &c. 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.
This is certainly a strong program to enforce reductions in energy use, and one wonders how freedom champion Benjamin Franklin could advocate such a draconian program.
He was joking.
The complete essay was published in the Journal of Paris in 1784, and I’m certain that all of Franklin’s friends enjoyed a good le chuckle over it.
Little did Franklin know that a hundred years later, people would take the proposal seriously.