Can the break of day be negotiated?

As Daylight Saving Time concludes this weekend, many Americans will roll back their clocks and grab an extra hour of sleep - a windfall of slumber that would probably inspire Benjamin Franklin's winking approval.

In his later years, Franklin distanced himself from his famous philosophy of "early to bed, early to rise" and freely admitted to being a morning slugabed. He found plenty of kindred spirits while posted in Paris, where socialites stayed up late and barely stirred before lunch.

Poking fun at himself and his fellow night owls, Franklin offered a tongue-in-cheek plan for reform. By moving the city's clocks forward several hours, suggested Franklin, he and other yawning Parisians could be goaded into rising before noon and retiring near dusk, a schedule that promised huge savings in candle wax.

But generations later, efficiency experts would have the last laugh, adapting Franklin's idea of time-shifting in earnest. The United States embraced the modern version of Daylight Saving Time during both world wars to save energy, and in 1967, the practice became an annual event.

Franklin probably wouldn't be completely surprised that his clock-tinkering gag has evolved into a national policy. As a man of the Enlightenment, he was aware of humanity's unending quest to bend nature to its will, an ambition that couldn't leave the ageless workings of dawn and dusk untouched. Significantly, Franklin penned his "modest proposal" for saving daylight after seeing a demonstration for a new oil lamp so brilliant that he compared it to the sun.

Franklin, one of history's most famous dabblers in emerging technology, keenly anticipated a future in which the arrival of daylight and dark would become not only negotiable, but largely beside the point.

Daylight Saving Time, which rose to prominence when America was still strikingly agricultural, evokes a period when the country set its watch by sunrise and sunset, a business model that's been supplanted by the sleepless and bleary-eyed ethic of 24/7. In the age of the Internet and instant messaging across international time zones, 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. can seem blandly interchangeable, and the wall clock as quaint as a sundial. But if the modern marketplace never sleeps, when can we catch a few winks without guilt?

For this, too, Franklin had a solution. In his proposal for saving daylight, he suggested a mandatory closing of commerce after sunset, except for the emergency missions of "physicians, surgeons and midwives." Such a mandate, he reckoned, would get everyone in bed at a decent hour.

He was joking, of course. But then maybe Ben Franklin was simply ahead of his time.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate.

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