Sunday, April 5, 2009

Daylight Saving

Daylight saving ended this morning – a now accepted part of the calendar year. Its origins goes back to English monarch Charles II establishing the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675 with the aim of developing a star map to help ships determine longitude. With these maps, plus developments in watch-making, sea captains such as Cook could work out whereabouts they were while at sea. But accuracy in knowing where you were did not guarantee knowledge of the time of arrival home. Sailing ships like horse and stage-coach were at the mercy of the elements. The advent of the steam railway train in the 19th century ended this randomness of arrival. From departure to arrival time could be accurately measured. Obviously a common time was needed to enable people to catch the train. Local time created confusion. So the various British railways decided to use London time as the Greenwich system was called. Some of the provincial cities objected but common sense prevailed.

Nations began to use the same system. New Zealand was one of the first (1868) to adopt a standard time to be observed throughout the country, set at 11 hours 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich mean time. Greenwich time was not adopted officially by the United Kingdom until 1880. Four years later an international conference decided to make the world-wide standard an imaginary line running from pole to pole and going through Greenwich. Ever since it has been the basis of all time-zones. Liberia in West Africa was the last nation to accept it. In 1972 they abandoned their stubborn insistence of their own local time, out of step with all their neighbours.

The USA is more complicated, the distances are vast and run in all directions. To end the confusion of local time in 1883 the railway companies there divided the country into artificial time zones. During the First World War the Federal Government introduced daylight saving. As soon as the war it was removed for farmers were bitterly opposed to it. After Pearl Harbour it was re-introduced but again was repealed as soon as the war was over. Cities and states reverted to choosing their own time. This caused so much confusion that in 1966 the Federal Government legislated for national daylight saving.

New Zealand’s first advocate of daylight saving was Dunedin MP Thomas Sidey. In 1909 he argued that clocks should be advanced by one hour each summer to add an hour of daylight to the evenings. For the next twenty years he regularly introduced draft legislation, until in 1926 the House of Representatives passed it. But then the Upper House, the Legislative Council rejected it. New Zealand once, like most western democracies, had two legislative houses. Our Upper House was abolished by the National government in 1951. As a result of that particular change tremendous power was given to the one debating chamber, a major reason for the introduction of MMP in 1996.

The 1926 debates over the introduction of daylight saving indicate the arguments of the time. Sidey claimed “the extra hour of daylight after working-hours during the summer months is of especial value to indoor workers and the community as a whole as it gives one additional hour for recreation of all kinds, whether playing games or working in garden plots ... one cannot overlook the economic advantages that will also accrue. There will be a saving in the consumption of artifical light.” Opponents expressed concern about the women “who live in the backblocks”. Further, it would cause “the wife of a working-man to get up an hour earlier in order to get her husband away to his work.” As there were no women in either house Hansard does not record what they really thought. Sidey, however, continued to persevere. In 1927 both Houses passed a Bill enabling an experiment whereby the clock was put forward for an hour in summer. This change did create much rural resentment. Radio listeners got better reception at night so they were also opposed. Sidey compromised and in 1928 he got a new bill making a half-hour change. By this New Zealand summer time was set 12 hours ahead of Greenwich, and the passage of the legislation indicates our switch from a rural to an urban society. For a while there was an amusing spin-off. People arranging to meet had to ask where they using real time or Sidey’s time.

Then during the Second World War as an efficiency measure, standard time was altered to be 12 hours ahead of Greenwich time. This advanced our daylight saving once again. Daylight saving is now one hour in advance of New Zealand standard time. The Chatham Islands are a further forty-five minutes ahead of that time. Late in the 20th century after extensive consultation it was decided to begin the saving earlier and ending later. The dates now are the last Sunday in September and the first in April.

So the modern world runs on arbitrary clock time, part of what we take for granted. In a hotel I stayed at in Kyoto I could programme my wake-up call in English, Japanese or French, male of female. I tried all three female voices and settled for the French for my stay. The computerised machinery for that voice was based on Greenwich time.

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