April's Sky


No one knows where the tradition of "April Fools" came from. It's origin has been wrapped in obscurity for a long time. Some claim that the custom has something to do with the Vernal Equinox and the coming of Spring, and that may be true, for legend has it that Demeter, hearing the echo of her daughter's screams as she was carried away to the underworld by Pluto, went searching for the echo, and did indeed go on a fool's errand. The Romans celebrated the feast of Cerealia (Ceres was the Roman name for Demeter) in early April.

The first of April, some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools Day,
But why the people call it so,
Nor I, nor they themselves, do know.
          Poor Robin's Almanac, 1760

In France, since at least the time of Charles IX and his disliked calendar reform (1564), the April Fool is called poisson d'avril - an April fish. Is it because the Sun is leaving Pisces? Or is it because April fish are easily caught? April fooling in England became very popular in the eighteenth century, and in Scotland it is still called 'Hunting the Gowk (cuckoo)', where the cuckoo is sent on one fruitless errand after another carrying a sealed note which says: 'Don't you laugh and don't you smile, Hunt the gowk another mile.' (Does anybody still fall for this ?)

Like all good traditions, April Fools Day was duly brought to the American colonies where it has persisted chiefly among schoolboys who delight in calling the Zoo and inquiring for Mr. Fish and Mr. Lamb, or dropping by the local hardware store and asking for such items as skyhooks and striped paint, or taping notes ( "April Fool", "Kick Me") to teacher's back.

So. It's simply amazing what astronomy will bring us to, don't you think?

"Think thou existence doth depend on Time?"

The idea of using daylight hours for something more useful than sleep is not new. Ben Franklin, while ambassador to France, is said to have awakened one morning in spring and found all of Paris still sleeping. He came home with the idea of adjusting the time to fit the seasons, but his idea was met with as much enthusiasm as calendar reform. Along came World War I. To conserve fuel and to generally aid in the War effort, the Standard Time Act was passed by Congress in March 1918. This was 30 years after everyone else had adopted, at the urging of the railroad magnates, something called 'Railroad Time'.

Dispensing with the idea of a 'local time', 'Railroad Time' divided the continent into 5 'time zones'. This would eliminate, they said, much of the confusion common across the land. (At one time during the 19th century, a person traveling from coast to coast would have to reset his watch some 20 times). Well, everyone grumbled. The Indianapolis Sentinel complained "...People-55 million of them-must eat, sleep and work... by railroad time. The Sun will be requested to rise and set by railroad time. The planets must...make their circuits by such timetables...". The Washington Post reassured those who feared that "... this shaking up of time standards may endanger the stability of the universe." Even the U.S. Naval Observatory (oh, dear!) was against the new system at first, arguing that the new system would only "authorize the confusion". Eventually, however, everyone came around. Even the Naval Observatory. *

But the Standard Time Act passed in 1918 did something more than simply recognize the 'time zone' system. It provided that for 7 months of the year standard time would be advanced 1 hour to fully utilize all those hours the Sun might be up and folks might not. After the War, it was up to the local municipality whether or not to continue to enact Daylight Saving Time, and confusion reigned. Americans called the whole program "living on scrambled time", a problem not entirely unknown today still.

During World War II, Daylight Saving Time was officially re-enacted, but afterwards, chaos again prevailed when localities either continued it or not and did so on their own schedules. It was called "Wildcat Time" or "War Time" in those days, with nearly as many different schedules within a state as there were states to begin with. Even today, there are places which do not comply: Arizona, Hawaii, parts of Indiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, and some Indian reservations.

But, am I playing for time? The answer is... "It doth." Manfred, Lord Byron


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