If I could turn back the hands of time

I learned that in 1784 France, an essay was published in the “Journal de Paris” entitled “An Economical Project”. The writer, an old man, an American living and working in Paris, advocated for an idea he proposed would save Parisians a great deal of money.

At that time the bourgeoisie of Paris were known for keeping late hours. Their active, waking lives extended well past two or three in the morning and they would sleep until noon. This American effortlessly adopted and enjoyed this alternative circadian lifestyle. He would sip brandy and play chess with his friends until the wee hours of the morning then wake around noon and open his shutters to the brilliance of the midday sun. The guy kept the hours of a 78-year-old party animal.

In his essay, the writer tells the story of being awakened early one morning, mere hours after going to bed, by a loud noise. The man gets out of bed to investigate the source. He throws open the window shutters and is completely surprised to find the sun had risen and the world was basking in daylight. He checks his watch and finds its only 7 a.m. Being of the habit of not getting out of bed till noon, he had no idea the sun shined at 7 a.m. Later that day, he shares this discovery with a friend…a philosopher…who also had no personal experience with sunshine until well after noon. His philosopher friend reasoned this is impossible and that when the man opened his shutters, he wasn’t letting daylight in, but rather, he had let the darkness out. So the American checks his almanac and finds, yes, the sun does indeed rise before 7 a.m.

Now, this old guy was a self-educated, thoughtful and insightful sort. When he was a boy, he helped in father in a candle shop. He knew what wax and tallow cost and he wondered how much the people of Paris would save in candle and oil lamp usage if Parisians went to bed an hour earlier and got out of bed an hour earlier.

So the old man, according to the essay, does some math… “183 nights between 20 March and 20 September times 7 hours per night of candle usage equals 1,281 hours for a half year of candle usage. Multiplying by 100,000 families gives 128,100,000 hours by candlelight. Each candle requires half a pound of tallow and wax, thus a total of 64,050,000 pounds. At a price of thirty sols per pounds of tallow and wax (two hundred sols make one livre tournois), the total sum comes to 96,075,000 livre tournois.” And no! I have no idea how much a livre tournois is.

He shows his statistics to a group of friends who even though they see the numbers, how much could be saved, they just can’t take the idea seriously because no one could ever seriously believe a Parisian would willfully go to bed an hour early no matter how much he saved.

The guy in the essay thinks on this a bit and wonders…even though Parisians would never willfully go to bed early they might be forced to do so through various laws, taxes and regulations … like taxing window shutters designed to keep the light out … rationing candles at the rate of one pound per week … requiring church bells to ring at sun rise, or if necessary, use cannons. He figured the first few days or so would be a bit rough on Parisians but he assumed they would soon become accustomed to their new sleep schedules.

The name of the 78-year-old American who wrote this essay was Benjamin Franklin. It was satire … he was parodying himself and his friends … it was a joke … but it got printed in the media … then it got picked up by other media … people talked about it …t hen somewhere along the way some German during World War I figured out that you don’t need church bells or cannons to change people’s sleeping habits…you just need to move the hands on the clock. And now, today, this very morning, I got one extra hour of sleep because of something that began as what would be today’s equivalent of a YouTube or Facebook posting gone viral.

And one might presume I’m happy about this extra hour of sleep. But I’m not. Because I know that in a few months I will need to pay it back. And Benjamin Franklin was wrong…people do not adapt to the change in sleeping schedules within a few days. It takes till just a few days before the time changes back to what it was before the time change for us to become accustomed to the previous time change … meaning … there are many Americans who are always sort of cranky except for 6-10 days a year.

Now, Benjamin Franklin was an amazing man and I’m not saying he shouldn’t be honored on our $100 bill. But if I could turn back the hands of time to 1969 when he was first put there, I would move his image to the side where the image of Independence Hall is now printed and move the image of Independence Hall to the side where his image is currently printed … because … he wrote that silly essay. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com