Daylight Saving Time is the semi-annual ritual of setting our clocks one hour forward or back depending on the season. “Spring forward. . .fall back” is the familiar reminder of which direction we should adjust our clocks. But why do we have DST and where did it come from? It turns out that Daylight Saving Time has a rich history spanning hundreds of years and two World Wars. So let’s take a brief journey through time to understanding the origin and purpose of this time travel trickery.
The History Behind Daylight Saving Time
Daylight Saving Time is simply a change by one hour in the time of each time zone. Time zones were first used by the railroads in 1883 to standardize their schedules. Before time zones, time was set locally based on various astronomical conditions. In 1918, the U.S. Congress made the U.S. rail zones official under federal law and gave the responsibility to make any changes to the Interstate Commerce Commission. When Congress created the Department of Transportation in 1966, it transferred the responsibility for the time laws to the new department.
That same year Congress passed the Uniform Time Act of 1966, the law by which we turn our clock forward in the spring and back in the fall. The law does not require that anyone observe Daylight Saving Time; all the law says is that if we are going to observe Daylight Saving Time, it must be done uniformly.
But daylight saving time did not begin in 1966. In fact, it was Benjamin Franklin who first hinted at the idea in a 1784 essay titled, “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light.” It was published anonymously while Franklin was an American envoy to France. The essay suggested that Parisians rise earlier in the morning to take advantage of sunlight, thus conserving candles. The satirical piece proposed taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise.
The idea did not catch on at that time, as you might imagine, and it was more than 100 years later when an Englishman, William Willett, suggested it again in 1907. According to one website, “Willett was reportedly passing by homes where the shades were down, even though the sun was up. He wrote a pamphlet called “The Waste of Daylight” because of his observations.” Willett’s proposal was a tad more complex than the Daylight Saving Time we know today:
Willett wanted to move the clock ahead by 80 minutes in four moves of 20 minutes each during the spring and summer months. In 1908, the British House of Commons rejected advancing the clock by one hour in the spring and back again in the autumn.
Willett’s proposal eventually lead to the British Summer Time by an Act of Parliament in 1916. Clocks were moved one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) during the summer months. The purpose was to conserve energy, a cherished commodity during the first World War. The United States followed suit, observing DST for seven months in 1918 and 1919. The law was later repealed, however, do to its unpopularity.
A second World War brought daylight saving time back again by an act of Congress on February 9, 1942. To save energy, time was put forward one hour year-round until September 30, 1945.
From 1945 to 1966, there was no national law concerning Daylight Saving Time. Nevertheless, many state and local governments observed DST, and by 1966, more than 100 million Americans were moving the clocks forward and backward based on local ordinance and customs. As the nation become more unified through TV, radio, trains and buses, however, the disparate observance of DST caused serious confusion.
Enter Congress. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 (15 U.S. Code Section 260a) created Daylight Saving Time to begin on the last Sunday of April and to end on the last Sunday of October. Any area that wanted to be exempt from Daylight Saving Time could do so by passing a local ordinance. The law was amended in 1986 to begin Daylight Saving Time on the first Sunday in April.
Recent Changes to Daylight Saving Time
If you are old enough to remember the Carter Administration, than you remember the long lines for gas and the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. To conserve energy, Congress put most of the nation on extended Daylight Saving Time for two years. The change worked, but due to opposition mainly from farming states, the experiment came to an end in 1975. The U.S. Department of Transportation studied the results of the extended DST and concluded the following:
- Daylight Saving Time saves energy: Based on consumption figures for 1974 and 1975, The Department of Transportation says observing Daylight Saving Time in March and April saved the equivalent in energy of 10,000 barrels of oil each day — a total of 600,000 barrels in each of those two years. California Energy Commission studies confirm a saving of about one percent per day.
- Daylight Saving Time saves lives and prevents traffic injuries: The earlier Daylight Saving Time allowed more people to travel home from work and school in daylight, which is much safer than darkness. And except for the months of November through February, Daylight Saving Time does not increase the morning hazard for those going to school and work.
- Daylight Saving Time prevents crime: Because people get home from work and school and complete more errands and chores in daylight, Daylight Saving Time also seems to reduce people’s exposure to various crimes, which are more common in darkness than in light.
DOT’s sanguine conclusions, however, were not uniformly held. The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) reviewed the DOT study in 1976 and found no significant savings.
Energy Policy Act of 2005
Under The Energy Policy Act of 2005 , Daylight Saving Time begins three weeks earlier than previously, on the second Sunday in March. DST is extended by one week to the first Sunday in November. The new start and stop period began in March 2007.
The Pros and Cons of Daylight Saving time
Daylight Saving Time has experienced its share of controversy. Winston Churchill argued that DST increases “the opportunities for the pursuit of health and happiness among the millions of people who live in this country”. In contrast, Robertson Davies saw “the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.” But rhetoric aside, what exactly does DST do for us?
According to some studies, DST helps us conserve energy, reduce traffic accidents, and encourage economic activity. As noted above, studies are mixed on Daylight Saving Time’s impact on energy consumption. As for its economic impact, retailers tend to favor DST, while farmers do not. And as with energy conservation, studies are mixed on DST’s impact on traffic fatalities.
So there you have it. First proposed by Benjamin Franklin. Reintroduced by the Englishman Willett and implemented during the first World War to conserve energy. Today its use, while controversial, is continued to conserve energy, with the side benefits of reducing automobile accidents and crime. But perhaps one musical group said it best:
Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care. . . about time?
If so, I can’t imagine way.
We’ve all got time enough to die.
Published or updated May 23, 2011.