When Magellan’s fleet returned to Portugal after completing the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, Magellan's assistant Antonio Pigafetta noticed something odd: The locals said it was Thursday, but his diary indicated it was Wednesday. Without knowing it, Pigafetta had crossed the arbitrary point on the globe where one day becomes another, making him the first recorded traveler disoriented by time change.
Magellan’s ships moved at a pace of roughly five miles per hour, so his sailors didn’t have to deal with anything resembling what we now know as jet lag. Over the next four hundred or so years, however, ships got faster, trains were invented, and countries adapted time zones to standardize schedules. But people still weren’t moving fast enough to disrupt their biological clocks.
The first record of jet lag comes from another circumnavigator, Wiley Post. Post was the first pilot to fly around the world and did so in eight days (Magellan took three years). Post could only fly during daylight, and he anticipated that he would be able to sleep less and less as he moved further east and the sun rose earlier. As such, he adjusted his sleep schedule for months before the trip, and boasted that he “never slept during the same hours on any two days in the same week.” Nevertheless, he and his navigator couldn’t beat their biological clocks, and his journal shows that they flew around the world in a near constant state of drowsiness.
In 1952, airlines began commercial service on jet planes, and the hell of hopping timezones was realized on a large scale. Early sufferers had bigger problems than drowsiness. In 1956, jet lag helped cause an international incident when Secretary of State John Dulles got off a transatlantic flight and heard that Egypt had bought Soviet weapons. He immediately cancelled US aid to Egypt, setting in motion events that would cause a war between Israel and Egypt. Dulles admitted he had made a huge mistake and blamed it on his disrupted sleep schedule.
By 1958, more people crossed the Atlantic by plane than by boat. A Popular Mechanics article broke down the radical new changes jet travel was bringing to travelers.
“On a jet trip,” it said, “the people who live in the next city on your route may be quitting work when your body says it’s time to turn off the alarm clock and greet the dawn. Your appetite says breakfast when it’s time for dinner.”
However, it would be eight years before there was a catchy way to describe that feeling of airplane-induced time confusion. Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine pinpoints the first use of “jet lag” to a 1966 Los Angeles Times article:
“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 unakin to a hangover. Jet Lag derives from the simple fact that jets travel so fast they leave your body rhythms behind.”
Ever since, travellers have waged war against jet lag, using everything from cryotherapy to Viagra and even dark magic. And while some remedies certainly make the symptoms more bearable, jet lag still throws us off. 50 years later, and we still haven’t entirely caught up.