The History Of Daylight Savings Time [Why Do We Adjust Our Clocks?]

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On Sunday, March 14th, clocks will spring forward once again. And though many of us enjoy that extra hour of sunshine at the end of our workday, the first week of Daylight Saving Time can (let’s just say it) suck, no matter which time zone you reside in.

In fact, you may find yourself groggily scratching your head and thinking, “Why do we do this anyway?” Vague notions of farmers and something about energy may drift through your foggy mind, but none of it really makes sense.

So, in case you’d like to know why you have to suffer through this yearly interruption of your circadian rhythm, we’ve put together a history of Daylight Saving Time. Hopefully, it will answer any questions that may linger in your soon-to-be-sleep-deprived brain.

First of All, You’ve Been Saying It Wrong….

Although many of us usually say “Daylight Savings Time,” the correct way to say it is “Daylight Saving Time.” There’s no “s” on the end of saving because it’s acting as an adjective. But don’t sweat it.

How are you supposed to keep things straight when you lose an hour of precious sleep every spring? And because most people say it incorrectly, chances are no one will notice. But don’t say we didn’t tell you.

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Who Came Up With the Idea to Start Messing with Time?

So who can you blame for the yearly bump in our time continuum? As it turns out, there are various responsible parties.

Many people mistakenly attribute the idea to Benjamin Franklin. But Mr. Early-to-Bed-Early-to-Rise actually had nothing to do with it. However, he did pen a satirical essay in 1784 while in Paris, France as a political envoy. In it, he suggested Parisians could save major bucks on candles if they would only haul their butts out of bed at dawn.

Obviously, I’ve reworded the idea. But the point is that he never suggested anything about resetting clocks.

All About Bugs


However, in 1895, an entomologist from New Zealand, George Hudson, specifically suggested the idea. He wanted to move the clocks forward not one but two hours ahead. Why? So he could have more daylight hours to catch insects.

Not the way I like to spend my extra daylight hours but to each his own. Nothing was actually enacted into federal law at the time, but now the concept was officially out there.

Related: Why Sleep Matters To Your Health [And How to Improve Your Sleep] 

The British Are Sleeping! The British Are Sleeping!

Now, we shall spring ahead to England in 1905. A British builder named William Willett was enjoying an early morning horseback ride in the outskirts of London when it suddenly struck him that English people were sleeping right through the early morning summer sunshine and wasting precious daylight.

Maybe it was living in the normally cold, dreary United Kingdom that spurred him on, but the guy was suddenly all on fire about the idea. In fact, in 1907, he wrote a paper called, “The Waste of Daylight.”

Filled with a missionary-like zeal, he took the idea of moving the clocks forward to British Parliament. Though backed by famous people like Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the government rejected the idea. Year after year. And they kept rejecting it until William Willett died in 1915 at the age of 58.

So poor Willett never lived to see his grand idea adopted. But he does happen to be the great-great-grandfather of Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay. So at least he did produce something good in the end.

This Means War on Time!

Bruce on Politics

In 1916, one year after Willett died, Germany legally adopted Daylight Saving Time nationwide. We can only imagine that the British builder promptly turned over in his grave.

Germany was the first country to switch its clocks (though a few cities in Canada adopted the idea just one week prior).

So why did the famously efficient Germans decide to go for it? They were two years into World War I and looking for ways to save on energy consumption when they remembered Willett’s idea. As the major energy source back then was coal, more daylight during working hours meant less coal burnt.

So, what insect collecting and early morning horseback rides could not accomplish was finally achieved through the cold, hard math of war.

Daylight Saving Time was now on the map. Soon Britain and all the other countries that fought in World War I also adopted (some would say succumbed) to the idea and turned it into law.

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The Not-United States of America

You may think that the story ends there and that the world lived happily or grumpily ever after, depending on where they stood on the idea of DST. But such is not the case, especially in America.

Like most of Europe, The United States adopted Daylight Saving Time in March of 1918 to save energy and help the war effort. And contrary to popular belief, farmers were NOT in favor of the idea.

That’s because they work by the sun and natural rhythms, not by the clock. And guess what? Just because the clock says it’s an hour earlier does not mean that your cow is ready to be milked. And you can’t harvest hay when the dew is still on it. I could go on with farm minutia, but I think you get the idea.

In fact, it was actually farmers who led the fight for the repeal of DST. And in 1919, Congress overrode Woodrow Wilson’s veto and did vote to repeal it. However, they did give states and cities the option to continue the practice if they wanted to.

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And Here Is Where It Gets Crazy

Though it was no longer law now, after the repeal of mandatory DST, cities and states could shift their clocks whenever they pleased or choose not to do it all. And this resulted in a lot of confusion. In the state of Iowa alone, there were 23 different start and end dates to DST at one point.

Across the nation, it was total chaos when it came to timekeeping. Yes, folks, the clocks had gone totally coo-coo.

There was a brief respite to the madness during World War II when Daylight Saving Time was once again enacted as a wartime measure nationwide. But it was repealed after the war ended, and soon bus, plane and train schedules were thrown off by clocks that weren’t in sync.

Things finally got so crazy that in 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed what was called the “Uniform Time Act.” It standardized specific days for changing our clocks and required states to either adopt DST or opt-out entirely.

And this put an end to the chaos of cities and counties doing their own thing.

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The 1973 Experiment

In 1973, President Richard Nixon tried putting year-round Daylight Saving Time into effect as a reaction to the oil embargo against the United States. It was a brief experiment that didn’t last partly because of fears that children could get hit by cars as they walked to school in the dark.

So we once again went back to the regular (well, sort of) seasonal time changes.

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Does DST Really Save Energy?

And now we must come around to the million or perhaps millions of dollars question. Does switching our clocks around really help us to save energy? After all, we’re not using coal stoves anymore, and lighting has become more and more efficient.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut answer, and the issue is still hotly debated. While studies have been done around the world and across the years, they offer conflicting results.

For example, a study by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008 reported a .5% decrease in electricity use since we extended DST in 2005.

On the other hand, a 2011 study by economists Mathew Kotchen and Laura Grant reported a 4% increase in electricity consumption in the state of Indiana when certain counties began observing DST.

So if there’s no real evidence that Daylight Saving Time actually conserves energy, why do we still change our clocks?

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The Times They Are A-Changin’

To get to the bottom of who’s behind the time change, you must forgive us if we take a brief leap backward in time. We mentioned that back during World War I, farmers fought pitchfork and nail against the implementation of the time change, but we didn’t mention who was in favor.

As it turns out, one of the principal backers was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Why? Because people who get off of work when it’s still light out are more likely to go shopping! Cha-ching!

Sports and recreation businesses also saw the benefit as profits increased or even skyrocketed during DST. Major league baseball was also an early backer as it was easier to get people to ball games.

And, in case you haven’t been paying attention, the amount of DST has increased over the years. Back in 1966, we observed it for only 6 months. Starting in 1986, DST was extended for 7 months. And now we observe a full 8 months of Daylight Saving Time.

Are we really saving energy with the extension of our days? Or spending more money? We’ll leave you to ponder it.

Related: The History Of The National Hockey League’s Winter Classic 

10 Weird Facts About DST

Now that you know the somewhat complicated history of Daylight Saving Time, here are a few other oddball facts.

  • Arizona and Hawaii are the only two American states that stay on Standard Time all year long. And when you think about it, it makes sense.

In Arizona, where temperatures climb well into the 100’s during summer, nobody is really pining for extra daylight. They skip out on DST so that night time and a little relief from the heat come on faster. Plus, it helps with the state’s energy conservation.

And as Hawaii is much closer to the equator, DST doesn’t make a big difference in their daylight hours.

  • Oddly, the Navajo Nation, located in Arizona, does observe Daylight Saving Time. But the Hopi Nation, which is located completely inside the Navajo Nation, ignores DST like the rest of the state. Talk about being out of sync!
  • Ever wonder why DST starts at 2 a.m.? In theory, it’s so must people will be asleep and won’t notice the change. For example, most bars and restaurants are closed, and people that have to go to work early Sunday morning are usually in bed at that hour.
  • The Candy Industry lobbied for the extension of Daylight Saving Time for decades because it ended before Halloween. In 1985, candy lobbyists went as far as placing candy pumpkins on every Senate seat to push the idea.

Then in 2007, their dreams came true when DST was extended into November. The sweet taste of success and profits!

  • The start of DST in spring has been associated with a drop in crime. In 2007, it dropped by 7% when DST was extended. Most baddies prefer to lurk around in the dark, apparently.
  • On the not-so-good side, various studies have linked the loss of sleep we experience in the spring to heart attacks, strokes and car accidents.
  • A study by the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics found a correlation between the shift to DST and lower SAT scores. Guess teenagers really do need their sleep!
  • The Golf and BBQ industry love DST as profits skyrocket. In 1986, golf lobbyists distributed an economic project to Congress, sharing that the extra hour of daylight added up to an extra $200 million in sales. The Barbecue industry claimed the hour amounted to an extra $100 million in sales.

Guess we know what a lot of people do with that extra hour!

  • Surfing the web at work for personal use goes up in the first few weeks of the time change. Researchers attribute it to a lack of sleep, focus and motivation. Duh.
  • About 1 quarter of the world’s population in 70 countries observe DST, though not all countries implement it on the same dates. The only major industrialized countries that don’t observe it are China, Japan and India.

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Time Bandits

Well, your brain may have possibly absorbed all the information it can about Daylight Saving Time. And whether you blame it on insects, William Willett, the Germans or big business, DST will begin again in just a few days.

Yes, you may feel especially groggy on the last Sunday before we spring forward. But in the end, having an extra hour of daylight when you get off of work is pretty nice. And even though you’re going to be robbed of an hour of sleep, at least you can steal it back again in the fall.

So have fun, stay warm in the spring and start planning what you’ll do with that extra hour of sunshine in the summertime sun!

You might also be interested in: When Was the Last Time You Called Your Grandparents? 5 Ways to Communicate While Social Distancing 

Sherry De Alba

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