You can thank Wall Street traders for that hour of sleep you lost this weekend. You knew they were powerful, but I bet you didn't know that they actually control time. Or at least, they did back in 1920.
Although we all adjust to daylight saving time without much trouble, it's impossible to take the switch completely in stride. It's like a glitch in the Matrix-one of those little hints that the world we live in is just an illusion built up over centuries to make life easier to bear. As a friend of mine described it, "It was like, 2 a.m. ... and then it was like 3 a.m.!" And really, there's nothing more to it than that. When you get down to it, it's just plain weird. So perhaps it's fitting that New York City plays a big role in the story behind daylight saving time.
Back in 1907, when the idea started circulating that it would be good to cook the clocks so that the world would be awake during more daylight hours, people weren't afraid to point out how ridiculous it was. As the New York Times editorial page put it, we "will have to hear a lot of better arguments that have yet been advanced before we join enthusiastically in the naïve game of playing that 7 o'clock is 8 or 9." This year, the editorial page maintained a cowardly silence on the issue.
There was initial resistance, but after Germany adopted daylight saving time to improve its efficiency during World War I, the United States followed suit in 1918. The idea continued to be unpopular, and after the war was over, Congress repealed the law. But while everyone else continued to think it was crazy, New York City remained at the cutting edge of clock-alteration science. The thing was, Britain was still on daylight saving time. And when New York City set its clocks ahead to match, there was an hour in which both the British and American stock exchanges were open, and Wall Street traders stood to make a lot of money each day through arbitrage between the markets.
In the battle between common sense and Wall Street traders, there was no contest. New York enacted its own daylight saving ordinance in 1920 and money flowed across the Atlantic like a reverse jet stream. Other big cities in America followed suit, keeping the tradition alive until 1966, when it was enshrined in federal law by the United States Congress in the form of the fascist-sounding Uniform Time Act.
Aside from the utter strangeness of playing with the time, there's always been a fair amount of controversy around the theoretical underpinnings of daylight saving time. Its supporters, including the United States government, argue that by better aligning the hours people are active with the hours of daylight, the switch saves energy and reduces traffic accidents. The data is sketchy, though, and the benefits remain an open question. In fact, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 stipulates that daylight saving time will last three extra weeks beginning in 2007, and that the Department of Energy should conduct a survey to see if it really is more efficient. But they are not without opposition, most notably from the folks at the aptly-named Citizens to End the Use of Daylight Saving Time in Alaska, a 501(c)(4) organization.
Not everyone takes it so seriously, though. While I was thinking about daylight saving time, I happened to be browsing around the Web site of the University of California Santa Barbara's Cylinder Digitization Project. It's an amazing undertaking, in which scholars have digitized over 6000 ultra old-school wax cylinder recordings from the early decades of the 20th century and made them freely available online. On a lark, I typed in "daylight"-and actually found something. The track is called "We Don't Want More Daylight," by the Australian singer Billy Williams (also noted for such songs as "She Does Like a Bit of Scotch" and "In the Land Where the Women Wear the Trousers"). The 1910 song actually begins with the lines "Lately/There has been a deal of fuss about the famous daylight bill/Which takes two hours from the dark dark night/And gives two hours that are clear and bright," although it gets considerably sillier from there.
But when you think about it more, daylight saving time doesn't seem so ridiculous. We impose a regular grid of streets on the island of Manhattan (at least above Houston), but in certain places we think we have to relax that artificiality to preserve our mental health. In the same way, we impose a regular schedule of hours on the undulating day, but we mess with that artificiality twice a year. So if you think having parks in New York City makes sense, then turning the clock forward should make sense too. When you live in a place as ultra-constructed as New York City, sometimes it takes a glitch in the Matrix to keep you sane.