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Whales, Franklin and Daylight Savings Time

March 6, 2014

The small tea-pot shaped lamp (pictured) is one of several coal miner’s lamps in the collection of the Birmingham History Center.  It is different than all the rest, however.  It uses a different type of fuel – whale oil, to be specific, spermaceti.  It is found in the head of sperm whales (a large whale could yield as much as 500 gallons).  Marine biologists don’t really know why the liquid is found there but speculate that it has something to do with either buoyancy or the whale’s motion-sensing sonar.OldSmokey

The lamp, known as “Old Smokey” because when lit the oil does give off a great deal of smoke, has a hook in the back which attached it to a miner’s helmet or cap.  Young boys were employed to carry buckets of whale oil in the coal mines to refill the miner’s lamps.  Whale oil production reached its peak in the 1850s, at about the same time as Herman Melville’s book, Moby Dick, was published.  Then it was replaced in lamps by petroleum products.

Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most famous American scientist, philosopher and statesman of the 18th century, was very much concerned with the whale oil industry.  As the American ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin headed the American delegation during the talks which led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and the winning of American independence.  One particular item on the agenda was to determine the fishing rights in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the area off the coast of Newfoundland known as the Grand Banks, an area rich in cod fish and whales.  Franklin wanted the U.S. fishing fleet (including whalers) to have the right to fish in this area, a concession which was granted in the treaty.


Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France

However, reports from home indicated that the whale population was declining off the Grand Banks, due to over-harvesting.  Franklin, a native of New England, knew how much the economy of the region depended on this trade.  But the problem was how to reduce the number of whales harvested in order to replenish to supply.  The answer seemed obvious to Franklin . . . use less whale oil.  But how?

The story goes that one day Franklin was out on a balcony overlooked the rooftops of Paris as the sun was going down.  He noticed that as it got darker, people in homes began lighting their whale oil lamps.  If only there was some way to delay the beginning of night – to save time.  That’s right, Benjamin Franklin invented Daylight Savings Time.  Well, sort of, the idea actually goes back to Roman times but it makes for a good story (Franklin did publish a short pamphlet telling the Parisians that they should be getting up earlier each day to take advantage of the sun light, an proposal that did not go over very well).


World War I Poster

In the early 20th century the idea finally began to gather momentum.  An English sportsman named William Willett, upset that the sun was going down during his round of golf, was able to get a bill to the British Parliament in 1908, but it was tabled.  Finally, it was the Germans in 1916 who went to Daylight Savings Time to save coal use during World War I.

In the United States, the Standard Time Act of 1918 put DST into effect for the first time, and it was an on again, off again affair through most of the 20th century.  The energy crisis of the 1970s brought the idea back.  The Uniform Time Act in 1986 began DST on the first Sunday in April to run until the last Sunday in October. This was modified by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, under President George W. Bush, to our present state of affairs, starting DST on the second Sunday of March through the first Sunday in November.

So when you change your clocks ahead one hour at 2 AM on March 9th this year, think of Benjamin Franklin and his attempt to save the whales back in 1783.  Then, of course, go back to sleep.



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