By Paul Mills
Daylight saving time is now here and with it comes an occasion to take a glimpse at how we arrived at it.
The concept of daylight saving was first notably advocated in a 1784 article by Benjamin Franklin. But it took many decades before it gained a foothold in America.
Though the twice a year changes in time may seem a bit confusing, it’s not as disruptive as the universe of time observed for most of history. Until the 1880s, time keeping was far more local, it being a literal application of solar time. Since the sun starts to shine four minutes earlier in Bangor than in Portland, the time observed at the present home of Stephen King would be that much ahead of where Longfellow did his teenage ice skating in Deering Oaks.
The railroad, an invention not prevalent in Franklin’s era provided an impetus for greater uniformity. This was the challenge of deciphering schedules that sorted out the minute-by-minute time zones for train arrival and departure times. The solution was the four zone U.S. system largely in use in the “Lower 48” today when it was created by a railroad sponsored commission in 1883.
It took a world war, however, to bring about another major change. That was in 1917 when Congress decreed a “fast time” system from the end of March to the end of October as a means of saving on energy costs. Thus, daylight saving time, or “DST,” was born at the national level.
The system was quickly repealed at war’s end when Congress left it up to state and local governments to decide for themselves whether to keep DST in effect and also what time zone to which each wanted to belong.
Maine voted in 1925 in a referendum to officially put the state into the Eastern time zone but the 34,000 to 28,000 vote outcome showed that consensus had not yet been achieved.
Even more divisive was the issue of whether to adopt DST, which had to be decided by local option voting.
The 1940s ushered in another national DST mandate during World War II, but as with the first, it was repealed shortly after the cessation of hostilities.
Not until 1966 did Congress weigh in again on the subject, setting up a more uniform system that did not allow much regional autonomy.
The 1973-74 energy crisis moved Congress to extent DST to 10 months, but by the end of the decade, yielding to pressure from some agricultural interests that pointed out the need for more daylight at the beginning of the day and from concerns over school children’s fatalities caused by the hazards of early morning darkness that accompanied DST, it was gradually abbreviated to a six–month system by the late 1970s.
In 1986, Maine Senator George Mitchell successfully sponsored a change that moved the advent of DST from the last Sunday in April to the first.
In 2007, Congress adopted the present regime. That’s when DST was moved up another three weeks to the second Sunday in March.
Intermittent rebellion against the system continues, however.
In 2017, the Maine House passed a bill that would have placed Maine into Atlantic time, in effect putting us into a year-round daylight saving time. Though the law would only have taken hold if both Massachusetts and New Hampshire did the same thing, it did not pass the Maine Senate.
I’m glad that not only Halloween but also Easter and the first day of spring are now celebrated in DST. It seems unlikely, however, that either Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah will likely soon share the same distinction in Maine.
Time will tell.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by email at [email protected].