The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 24 Jan 2006

Franklin and Daylight Saving Time
You often hear it asserted that Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of daylight saving time. But it's really not true.

The essential feature of DST is that there is an official change to the civil calendar to move back all the real times by one hour. Events that were scheduled to occur at noon now occur at 11 AM, because all the clocks say noon when it's really 11 AM.

The proposal by Franklin that's cited as evidence that he invented DST doesn't propose any such thing. It's a letter to the editors of The Journal of Paris, originally sent in 1784. There are two things you should know about this letter: First, it's obviously a joke. And second, what it actually proposes is just that people should get up earlier!

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. . . 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. . .

. . . still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. . . . 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.

I considered that, if I had not been awakened so early in the morning, I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candle-light; and, the latter being a much more expensive light than the former, my love of economy induced me to muster up what little arithmetic I was master of, and to make some calculations. . .

Franklin then follows with a calculation of the number of candles that would be saved if everyone in Paris got up at six in the morning instead of at noon, and how much money would be saved thereby. He then proposes four measures to encourage this: that windows be taxed if they have shutters; that "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", that travelling by coach after sundown be forbidden, and that church bells be rung and cannon fired in the street every day at dawn.

Franklin finishes by offering his brilliant insight to the world free of charge or reward:

I expect only to have the honour of it. And yet I know there are little, envious minds, who will, as usual, deny me this and say, that my invention was known to the ancients, and perhaps they may bring passages out of the old books in proof of it. I will not dispute with these people, that the ancients knew not the sun would rise at certain hours; they possibly had, as we have, almanacs that predicted it; but it does not follow thence, that they knew he gave light as soon as he rose. This is what I claim as my discovery.
As usual, the complete text is available online.

OK, I'm not done yet. I think the story of how I happened to find this out might be instructive.

I used to live at 9th and Pine streets, across from Pennsylvania Hospital. (It's the oldest hospital in the U.S.) Sometimes I would get tired of working at home and would go across the street to the hospital to read or think. Hospitals in general are good for that: they are well-equipped with lounges, waiting rooms, comfortable chairs, sofas, coffee carts, cafeterias, and bathrooms. They are open around the clock. The staff do not check at the door to make sure that you actually have business there. Most of the people who work in the hospital are too busy to notice if you have been hanging around for hours on end, and if they do notice they will not think it is unusual; people do that all the time. A hospital is a great place to work unmolested.

Pennsylvania Hospital is an unusually pleasant hospital. The original building is still standing, and you can go see the cornerstone that was laid in 1755 by Franklin himself. It has a beautful flower garden, with azaleas and wisteria, and a medicinal herb garden. Inside, the building is decorated with exhibits of art and urban archaeology, including a fire engine that the hospital acquired in 1780, and a massive painting of Christ healing the sick, originally painted by Benjamin West so that the hospital could raise funds by charging people a fee to come look at it. You can visit the 19th-century surgical amphitheatre, with its observation gallery. Even the food in the cafeteria is way above average. (I realize that that is not saying much, since it is, after all, a hospital cafeteria. But it was sufficiently palatable to induce me to eat lunch there from time to time.)

Having found so many reasons to like Pennsylvania Hospital, I went to visit their web site to see what else I could find out. I discovered that the hospital's clinical library, adjacent to the surgical amphitheatre, was open to the public. So I went to visit a few times and browsed the stacks.

Mostly, as you would expect, they had a lot of medical texts. But on one of these visits I happened to notice a copy of Ingenious Dr. Franklin: Selected Scientific Letters of Benjamin Franklin on the shelf. This caught my interest, so I sat down with it. It contained all sorts of good stuff, including Franklin's letter on "Daylight Saving". Here is the table of contents:

The Ingenious Dr. Franklin
Daylight Saving
Treatment for Gout
Cold Air Bath
Electrical Treatment for Paralysis
Lead Poisoning
Rules of Health and Long Life
The Art of Procuring Pleasant Dreams
Learning to Swim
On Swimming
Choosing Eye-Glasses
Lightning Rods
Advantage of Pointed Conductors
Pennsylvanian Fireplaces
Slaughtering by Electricity
Canal Transportation
Indian Corn
The Armonica
First Hydrogen Balloon
A Hot-Air Balloon
First Aerial Voyage by Man
Second Aerial Voyage by Man
A Prophecy on Aerial Navigation
Magic Squares
Early Electrical Experiments
Electrical Experiments
The Kite
The Course and Effect of Lightning
Character of Clouds
Musical Sounds
Locating the Gulf Stream
Charting the Gulf Stream
Depth of Water and Speed of Boats
Distillation of Salt Water
Behavior of Oil on Water
Earliest Account of Marsh Gas
Smallpox and Cancer
Restoration of Life by Sun Rays
Cause of Colds
Definition of a Cold
Heat and Cold
Cold by Evaporation
On Springs
Tides and Rivers
Direction of Rivers
Salt and Salt Water
Origin of Northeast Storms
Effect of Oil on Water
Spouts and Whirlwinds
Sun Spots
Conductors and Non-Conductors
Queries on Electricity
Magnetism and the Theory of the Earth
Nature of Lightning
Prehistoric Animals of the Ohio
Toads Found in Stone
Checklist of Letters and Papers
List of Correspondents
List of a Few Additional Letters
I'm sure that anyone who bothers to read my blog would find at least some of those items appealing. I certainly did.

Anyway, the moral of the story, as I see it, is: If you make your way into strange libraries and browse through the stacks, sometimes you find some good stuff, so go do that once in a while.

[ Addendum 20181026: The Franklin Institute agrees. ]

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