Benjamin Franklin Satirises the Waste of Daylight

How waking up early made Franklin think about natural light

He suggested a tax on shuttered windows and public alarm clocks

The question of a better use of daylight was raised by Benjamin Franklin, one of America's Founding Fathers, while he was posted in Paris in the 1780s.

Franklin's letter to the Journal of Paris in 1784 poked fun at modern habits of sleeping through daylight and burning fuel for light at night, as this extract shows:

Benjamin Franklin

"I was the other evening in a grand company, where the new lamp of Messrs. Quinquet and Lange was introduced, and much admired for its splendour; but a general inquiry was made, whether the oil it consumed was not in proportion to the light it afforded, in which case there would be no saving in the use of it. No one present could satisfy us in that point, which all agreed ought to be known, it being a very desirable thing to lessen, if possible, the expense of lighting our apartments, when every other article of family expense was so much augmented.

I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly.

I went home, and to bed, three or four hours after midnight, with my head full of the subject. An accidental sudden noise waked me about six in the morning, when I was surprised to find my room filled with light; and I imagined at first, that a number of those lamps had been brought into it; but, rubbing my eyes, I perceived the light came in at the windows. I got up and looked out to see what might be the occasion of it, when I saw the sun just rising above the horizon, from whence he poured his rays plentifully into my chamber, my domestic having negligently omitted, the preceding evening, to close the shutters.

I looked at my watch, which goes very well, and found that it was but six o'clock; and still thinking it something extraordinary that the sun should rise so early, I looked into the almanac, where I found it to be the hour given for his rising on that day. I looked forward, too, and found he was to rise still earlier every day till towards the end of June; and that at no time in the year he retarded his rising so long as till eight o'clock. Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon..."

The letter concluded with a set of preposterous suggestions guaranteed to make his readers think about the issue.

  1. A tax: "on every window that is provided with shutters to keep out the light of the sun."
  2. Energy rationing: "Let guards be placed in the shops of the wax and tallow chandlers and no family be permitted to be supplied with more than one pound of candles per week."
  3. A curfew after dark: "Let guards also be posted to stop all the coaches that would pass the streets after sunset, except those of physicians, surgeons, and midwives."
  4. Community alarm clocks: "Every morning, as soon as the sun rises, let all the bells in every church be set ringing; and if that is not sufficient?, let cannon be fired in every street, to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest."

His ideas were expanded by utilitarians but not politicians for the next 100 years..

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