When the rest of America springs forward Sunday morning, there might be some New Yorkers under the impression that they can doze for an extra hour and presumably still legally comply with court deadlines or other official proceedings.
Those New Yorkers would most likely be familiar – for reasons that would be a mystery to most – with Section 2-106 of Volume 2 of the New York City Administrative Code (there are 21 volumes in total).
That section states that “all courts, public offices and legal and official proceedings shall be regulated” by clocks that are switched from Eastern Standard to Eastern Daylight Time on the last Sunday of April and returned to Standard Time on the last Sunday of October.
That New York City seems to be behind the times when it comes to daylight saving time may be all the more surprising since standard time in America was conceived by a school principal in upstate New York. It was formally inaugurated in 1883 at Grand Central Terminal. And not for nothing did Johnny Carson define that instant between a traffic light turning green and the driver behind you honking his horn as the proverbial New York Minute.
Standard time was established in the late 19th century by the nation’s railroads in response to train crashes and to missed connections by bewildered passengers. More than 100 local time zones (noon was determined when the sun was directly overhead) were integrated into four.
Among the fathers of standard time was the Rev. Charles F. Dowd, a Methodist minister and a principal, along with his wife, of a girls’ boarding school that later became Skidmore College. He proposed four zones 15 degrees longitude wide (the sun moves across 15 degrees every hour). A version of his proposal was finally embraced by most railroads in 1883. (Dowd himself met an untimely end; he was struck by a locomotive at a grade crossing in Saratoga in 1904. History does not record whether the train was on time.)
Congress did not formally establish standard time and daylight saving time until 1918 (five years after the New York Central Railroad, proud of its role in inaugurating time zones, carved “Eastern Standard Time” into the marble under the clock in Grand Central’s Graybar Passage, which means the sign is wrong for nearly half the year).
In 1883, Americans greeted the time change with Y2K-style trepidation and with not a little resentment that the railroads were once again impinging on their daily routines.
The bankruptcy commissioner in Boston, for one, refused to comply. He declared a Massachusetts man in default because he got to court a minute late by local time but 15 minutes early under standard time. A Massachusetts Superior Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled in favor of the man. The justice said that though the standard had not been adopted by the State Legislature, the popular community consensus — standard time, which was imposed in Boston by the City Council the day before the man’s court appearance — nonetheless applied.
New York officials say their situation is analogous. While the schedule for daylight time in the city’s administrative code mirrors the federal April-to-October definition adopted in 1966, the provision is just another anachronism that has not been updated.
Legally and practically, the city says, that schedule was superseded by Congress in 2005 when the federal government extended daylight time another four weeks, to begin at 2 a.m. on the second Sunday in March and to last until the first Sunday in November. For New Yorkers who take local laws literally, consider this a timely reminder.