During the first few decades of its existence, Fairbanks relied on the Army Signal Corps as its official timekeeper, with the N.C. Co. whistle more or less synchronized with the Seattle office of the telegraph system, regardless of the sun’s position in the northern sky.
We still don’t set our clocks by the sun because of the 1984 decision by federal time lords to compress Alaska into two time zones.
In the summer, the sun hits its high point about 2 p.m., while it is about 1 p.m. starting today, with the shift to standard time. The time change is from double daylight saving to daylight saving, as scientist Carl Benson puts it.
In 1918, the first year the federal government began saving daylight, Fairbanks began struggling with the timing of that magic hour.
On the last Sunday in September, the Alaska Citizen newspaper, which competed with the Daily News-Miner, announced that the savings had ended. The Citizen advised everyone in Fairbanks to turn their clocks back one hour on Sept. 29, 1918.
Most, but not all of the people in Fairbanks, followed the newspaper’s advice. The all-important whistle of the N.C. Co. moved back an hour. The courthouse and the school also set their clocks back.
But the Army telegraph system did not change its time and neither did the railroad headquarters at Nenana, the churches or the News-Miner, where editor W.F. Thompson was skeptical, mainly because he had more trust in the Army Signal Corps than the other newspaper.
“Yesterday morning’s Citizen broke the news to the camp,” Thompson said of the time change. “As a result, some people who believe everything they read missed church. Not us, however — we were there before the door opened because we haven’t changed our time.”
Thompson milked this topic for several days, leading up to a story that appeared under the headline, “NOBODY KNOWS RIGHT TIME.”
He said the telegraph office was still getting the 10 a.m. signal from Seattle at 10 a.m. and his telegraph reports arrived at the same hour, which was all he needed to know.
“Nobody knows what time it is today. Maybe nobody cares, but this matter ought to be settled so that the other clocks in town may be so changed to jibe with the News-Miner clock — we’re too old to change our ways without a better excuse than a local story in a local newspaper,” Thompson said.
By the following day, the school district checked the law approved by Congress the preceding March and discovered that daylight saving was to end on the last Sunday in October, not the last Sunday in September.
The Citizen had succumbed to bad timing.
“All persons who changed their timepieces last Sunday should sometime tonight move them forward one hour. In the morning, the N.C. Co. whistle will be blown accordingly,” the News-Miner said.
The library archives contain no copies of the next day’s edition of the Alaska Citizen, but Thompson wrote in his paper that “some former reporter or editor of the Alaska Citizen had marked the calendar to tell himself that time changed on the last of September and his successor saw his mark Sunday morning and made a story out of it.”
A month later when the real end of daylight saving time arrived, several people in Fairbanks suggested that clocks be turned ahead, not back, to save some winter daylight for the afternoon. It never caught on.
A few weeks ago I was reminded that we can still get confused about saving daylight even in the age of Google.
Several Fairbanks visitors missed an early Sunday flight because someone who was as certain as the 1918 Citizen had told them to set their clocks back as daylight saving time was ending that weekend.
If you haven’t done so already, it's time to change you clock.