The Drift

When Did People Start Moving Fast Enough to Experience Jet Lag?

Photo by Everett Collection/Shutterstock, with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

As I write this, hurtling west at 550 miles per hour, the flight attendant is politely telling the guy in the row ahead of me to close his window. It’s daylight outside, it was daylight when we took off five hours ago on a Saturday morning, and it will still be daylight when we land in Seoul on a Sunday morning seven hours from now, but the airline has decided it’s time for us all to get some shut-eye. They’re doing this for our own good, but I’m not really tired yet, so I’m opting to stay up and suffer the consequences later.

“Cures” for jet lag abound online. They range from the commonsensical—timing your light exposure and sleep patterns before you leave in order to ease the transition—to the quackish: taking Viagra or shining a light behind your knees. But there’s something a bit strange about the idea that jet lag is a “condition” to be cured rather than the inevitable disorientation resulting from zooming across the Earth at speeds exponentially greater than humans had ever experienced until a few decades ago. Jet lag may be “future shock” at its most tangible, but when did it first emerge as an affliction? At what point did people start moving fast enough that it became an issue?

The exhaustion associated with long-distance travel is nothing new—the Declaration of Independence faults King George III for his habit of forcing legislators to attend meetings “at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant … for the sole purpose of fatiguing them.” The effects of time zone shifts were less evident in the age of sailing ships: During the two months Columbus and his crew spent making a trip that now takes about nine hours, the time difference was the least of their problems. Formal time zones weren’t established in the United States until 1883, when the coordination of nationwide rail travel made them a necessity; before that, most cities and town kept their own time.

According to a 1969 study on the topic by the Federal Aviation Administration, the first person to write in detail about the effect of rapid time zone shifts on air travelers was famed American aviator Wiley Post, best known as the first person to fly solo around the world and for the 1935 crash in Alaska that killed him and humorist Will Rogers. Post first made a name for himself in 1931 by circumnavigating the globe in just eight days and 15 hours, a world record. Post’s flight, in the plane Winnie Mae, shattered the 21-day record held by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin, demonstrating the superior speed of fixed-wing aircraft and making a case for the commercial viability of transcontinental flight.

Post and his navigator, Harold Gatty, recount their meticulous preparations in their co-written account, Around the World in Eight Days, including how they anticipated what we now call jet lag. Post writes:

I knew that the variance in time as we progressed would bring on acute fatigue if I were used to regular hours. So for the greater part of the winter before the flight, I never slept during the same hours on any two days in the same week. Breaking oneself of such common habits as regular sleeping hours is far more difficult than flying an airplane!

Later, while flying over the vast interior of the Soviet Union, Gatty informs the reader:

It is sometimes hard for non-navigators to realize that it can be 6:32 p.m. in Siberia and lunch time (1:32 p.m.) in London, when New Yorkers are just getting through their morning mail at 9:32 a.m., and that on all these hours of the same day, the next day is already 1 hour, 32 minutes old at the 180th meridian, known as the International Date Line.

This was mind-blowing stuff in 1931. But less than 30 years later, jet travel was commonplace, and its accompanying malady entered the national conversation. The 1958 Popular Mechanics article “Trials of the Jet-Age Traveler” informed readers that “flying around the world at nearly the speed of sound will throw your eating and sleeping schedules off as never before. … You can make a mental adjustment by simply resetting your watch while whizzing over the time zones of Paris, Beirut or Karachi. But your body doesn’t change its routine so easily.” The article notes that while airlines are trying to anticipate the problem by timing their flights and meals to help travelers adjust, “there is no pat solution. Jet-age passengers will just have to live through a little inconvenience.”

Smithsonian’s Air and Space magazine traced the first newspaper use of the term jet lag to a Los Angeles Times article from 1966. “If you’re going to be a member of the Jet Set and fly off to Katmandu for coffee with King Mahendra, you can count on contracting Jet Lag, a debility not un-akin to a glorious hangover.” The New York Times picked up on the term that same year in an article discussing the impact of fatigue on baseball players over the course of a long season. Teams owning their own planes were still something of a novelty; the paper wrote that players were starting to experience “ ‘Jet Lag,’ an invidious and debilitating ailment that acts like a nasty hangover.” (You have to wonder if the sensation being described actually had more to do with the in-flight refreshments of the Mad Men era.)

Jet travel and its side effects may be less novel today than they were in the ’60s, but jet lag is still the nuisance it was in Post’s day. It’s likely something we’ll have to cope with until the next disorienting advancement in travel comes along. The Atlantic recently pointed out that human colonies on Mars would have to adjust to the fact that the Martian day is 40 minutes longer than Earth’s. What will Mars lag feel like? Probably a hangover.

Read more from the Drift, Slate’s pop-up blog about sleep.