What Time is it Anyway?

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By Ruth Geos, Reference Librarian

Time, as it turns out, is a political issue, and our conceptual shaping of time–forward and back with Daylight Saving Time—has been touched over the last century by Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush II; and California voters over the years have had their own ideas as how to set the clock–and we’re not done yet.

Even though 59.7% of California voters voted for Proposition 7 in the November 6th, 2018 Election, we are only a little bit closer to year-round Daylight Saving Time in the Golden State. It won’t happen this year–or likely, right away. It’s more a nudge towards daylight.

Now as of December 2018, California is back on Standard Time, with darkness edging in by 5:00, before most of us are home or on to the next event. And we won’t return to Daylight Saving time until March 10th, 2019, when we spring forward an hour at 2:00 a.m., starting the cycle all over again.

Time–or rather, the time we say it is and the time we wish to live and work by—has its own history. Time is now regulated by federal statute. It took a while for Congress to get to this, but in 1918, Congress created a federal statutory scheme to unify time across the country, in one sense to keep the railroads going on time, so that there would not be a jumble of times from one state to another, or even within a single state. That statutory scheme, An Act to save daylight and to provide standard time for the United States divided the country into 5 distinct zones, with California in the Pacific zone. The Interstate Commerce Commission was put in charge of enforcement; and though it may seem that daylight or sunshine is more a question of energy, the Department of Transportation, the successor agency to the ICC, is still the authorized agency to enforce Time as a matter of commerce. The 1918 Act also initiated a Daylight Saving Time period across the country, to add an hour from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October. Gaining daylight by adjusting the day’s time was considered part of the war effort, America’s participation in World War I. When the war ended though, one year later in 1919, Congress repealed the Daylight Saving provision of the 1918 Act, overriding the veto of President Wilson, to scotch nationwide DST.

The idea of Daylight Saving Time was still much alive, and the pros and cons continued to mount, including within the State of California. In 1930, with Prop. 7 and again in 1940, with Prop. 5,  California voters twice turned down proposals to adopt a Daylight Saving time cycle from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in September. The effect of these thumbs down was to keep California on year-round Standard Time.

Then came war again, trumping all arguments and even the sun. In 1942, a year after the United States entered WWII, nationwide year-round Daylight Saving Time, or what Roosevelt called War Time, was put into effect “to promote the national security and defense”. The Act contained its own inborn expiration date of 6 months after the war ended, unless Congress chose an earlier date.

V-J Day, ending the war at last, came finally in August 1945; and in that wake, Congress acted quickly and repealed nationwide Daylight-Saving provision a month later, once again reverting the country to Standard Time–and by default allowing states to themselves choose not only whether to adopt Daylight Savings, but how to define the seasonal cycle.

It was in this post-war period, in 1949, that California voters finally gave the nod to Daylight Saving Time, passing Prop 12, to adopt daylight savings time statewide in CA, from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in September. There are more twists to the story, but this is the Proposition to keep your eyes on, like the rabbit under the hat, for the reveal is that this is the very proposition CA voters voted to repeal, by passing Prop 7 in November 2018. In 1962, voters again showed their preference for Daylight Saving Time, approving Prop. 6, to extend DST an additional month, to the last Sunday in October, to conform to the time-setting cycle of other major states.

Congress eventually raised its head again on the topic during the Johnson Administration, passing the Uniform Time Act of 1966, allowing two options for states: to operate on Standard Time through the entire state all year; or go with DST following a uniform period between the last Sunday in April and last Sunday in October. The advantage of this legislation was to conform the same dates of Daylight Saving Time to all states with Daylight Saving Time. States could also pass on Daylight Saving Time, by seeking a statutory exemption to keep on Standard Time year around. What Congress didn’t do, however, was to include any provision to permit states to adopt year-round DST: and that is what the voters in CA just last month voted to prefer as California time.

In this back and forth tale of Daylight Savings Time, there are yet a few more zigs and zags before we get to the 2018 California election, and how to get to the result Californians just approved with Prop. 7: first with one more national emergency, and then one by one expansions of the length of the daylight savings part of the year, to get to the state of time now.

In 1973 with a complete oil embargo imposed by the OPEC nations, causing an immediate energy crisis, Congress passed and Nixon signed into law the Emergency Daylight Savings Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973, adopting a two-year trial period of year-round Daylight Saving Time. Just as in wartime, the county was back on year-round Daylight Saving Time, this time set to expire on the last Sunday of April 1975—and then to revert to the earlier spring/fall cycle of daylight savings time. Continue Reading



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