Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time Hardcover – 28 Jan 2005
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You can read the other reviews posted here for highlights. The reading is easy and the tone light, with many fascinating vignettes scattered throughout. Quite a few times I looked up from my reading and said to my wife, “Listen to this one.” But it’s more than just stories; the stories take you through the development of first the idea and then the realities of Daylight Saving Time in such a way that you feel you really understand its evolution. I highly recommend the book for leisure reading.
Since 1986 the U.S. has observed DST from the first Sunday of April to the last Sunday of October. Beginning in 2007, DST is to be expanded by three weeks (in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005). It will now begin on the second Sunday of March and extend until the first Sunday of November. Given this change I figured it was high time for me to find out what Daylight Saving Time is all about.
I review below David Prerau's Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time. It's the first of two DST-related books that have been weighing down my TBR shelves. Both books were published in 2005--the idea of exploring DST apparently being very much in the air in the first years of the new millennium.
Benjamin Franklin proposed in 1784, when he was serving as the American minister to France, that Parisians conserve energy--in the form of candle wax and tallow--by changing their habits, rising with the sun rather than sleeping in with their shutters closed against the daylight. The idea never caught on, and it is at any rate impractical as it would depend on the alteration of individual habits on a large scale for it to have any chance of working for a community. Over a hundred years later, in 1905, a certain William Willett devised an alternative plan for increasing the number of usable daylight hours during England's summer months. His plan, what we now call Daylight Saving Time, called for setting the nation's clocks forward in the spring (he initially imagined the time being changed in 20-minute increments on each of four successive Sundays) and back in the fall, thus not relying on people to alter their sleep patterns on an individual basis. His idea didn't catch on either, at least not immediately. In his book Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time author David Prerau, who has coauthored government reports on the effects of DST, traces the complex history of DST from Willett's tireless campaigning on behalf of its adoption to the modern era. Prerau also provides a chapter on the two artificial adjustments to natural sun time that men adopted prior to the introduction of DST. (Mean solar time was adopted starting in the late 18th century. It differs from apparent solar time in that the length of a day is a constant throughout the year rather than depending on the amount of daylight in any given day, which varies throughout the year. The second artificial adjustment was standard time, adopted in the late 19th century, which is when a single mean time is recognized over a large area.)
The history of DST has been, as Prerau's subtitle asserts, a highly contentious one, the case for and against its adoption taken up over the years by a variety of special interest groups--the railroads, theater operators, purveyors of sporting goods, golfers and farmers and concerned parents and religious purists. Political cartoonist jumped to portray its inconveniences. Presidents and prime ministers came to recognize its merits as an economizing measure. And scientists and astronomers were divided on the question of implementing it. The editors of the scientific journal Nature, for example, ridiculed DST early on by equating the time change with the artificial elevation of thermometer readings in the winter:
"'It would be more reasonable to change the readings of a thermometer at a particular season than to alter the time shown on the clock, which is another scientific instrument.' They wondered if perhaps another bill would be proposed 'to increase the readings of thermometers by ten degrees during the winter months, so that 32∘F shall be 42∘F. One temperature can be called another just as easily as 2 A.M. can be expressed as 3 A.M.; but the change of name in neither case causes a change of condition.'"
It's surprising just how many people have had an axe to grind one way or another on the DST issue.
The implementation of DST was neither a quick affair nor a straightforward one. Initially adopted in the U.S. during World War I, for example, it was repealed in 1919, retained in pockets of the country between the Wars, adopted again and expanded during Wold War II, and repealed again by Truman after the War. It remained in use by local option in the decades following, and wasn't adopted as national law until 1966. Even now its implementation is not entirely regular, as certain states and territories have opted not to observe DST. In short, the history of Daylight Saving Time is a confusing mess. Transforming the complex story of its adoption in the U.S. and England and elsewhere in the world into a readable narrative is a great accomplishment.
Prerau's book is packed with information, some of which certainly surprised me. I'd had no idea, for example, that it was standard as late as the 19th century for communities to determine their time locally, so that the time from town to town would vary by minutes depending on how the communities were situated from one another longitudinally.
"As long as travel and communications were relatively slow, it didn't much matter that, for instance, in the United States when it was 12:00 noon in Chicago it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:17 in Toledo, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianapolis, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:39 in St. Paul, and 11:27 in Omaha. The relaxed pace of travel, the lack of instant communications, the inherent inaccuracy of contemporary clocks, and the less frantic pace of life all made minor time variations unimportant."
What a strange world our great-grandparents inhabited.
Prerau sometimes errs on the side of including too many details in his book, but for the most part the story he tells is fascinating, and the book well written. Seize the Daylight is a nice example of a type of book that I particularly enjoy, one that is as informative as it is interesting to read, one that sheds light on a convention or invention that quietly informs our daily lives but which few of us bother to investigate on our own. Seize the Daylight definitely rewards the reading.
Debra Hamel -- author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece (Yale University Press, 2003)