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Spring Forward, Fall Back – a History of Daylight Savings Time

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It is generally assumed that Benjamin Franklin – along with inventing lightning rods, bifocal lenses and medical catheters – was responsible for proposing the idea of “adjusting the time” to allow for more daylight. Franklin actually suggested in a letter to the Journal of Paris written in 1784 that people go to bed earlier and wake up earlier, thus being more productive – although the article was not meant to be taken seriously.

The idea was actually contrived in 1907 by William Willet, an English house builder. Willett was riding his horse through the almost deserted streets of London in the early hours of the morning when he wondered why so many people were still asleep while the sun was already shining. Willett thought people would be healthier – and happier – if exposed to another hour of sunlight every day, and he also worked out the economic implications – according to him, the United States alone could save $25 million in energy costs every year.

Despite extensive lobbying and the support of prominent Britons, including Winston Churchill, Willet’s idea was never taken seriously until after his death. In 1917, the decision was made under the “Defense of the Realm Act” to advance the clocks in the UK by an hour every year, partly because of the need to save coal during the First World War. In the UK, the new “time” became known – perhaps optimistically – as British Summer Time. Britain’s enemy, Germany, had already successfully adopted the concept of adjusting the clocks in order to save energy. Within a few years, most countries in Europe had adopted some version of Daylight Savings Time. In 1917 parts of Canada and Australia also initiated it.

Today, Willett whose far reaching contribution to history is often overlooked, is buried in the picturesque London cemetery of Petts Wood, with a memorial in the form of a sundial set permanently to Daylight Savings Time. A nearby pub named “The Daylight Inn” also commemorates Willet’s achievement.

In 1918, the US House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming majority to pass a “daylight savings” bill in the United States, adjusting the clocks twice a year, as much of Europe was already doing. After the war ended, the practice became optional; most states discontinued the practice, although some states – even individual cities – still observed Daylight Savings. This led to regular confusion over bus and train times, opening hours and other scheduled events.

During World War II, President Roosevelt established year round Daylight Savings, which became known as “War Time”. After the war, states and localities were again free to choose whether they observed the practice or not, leading to more and more confusion over the time. It was discovered that on one 35 mile stretch of highway between Ohio and West Virginia, buses and their passengers went through 7 official time changes on their journey! In some parts of Texas, people discovered they were 2 hours ahead of or behind their neighbors.

In 1966, Congress decided to end the confusion and the Uniform Time Act created the system that was in place until recently, with the time being changed on the last Sunday of April, and the last Sunday of October. The law does not actually require that anyone observes Daylight Saving – it just states that it must be done uniformly, making it somewhat difficult not to comply with the law! Three states still refused to observe the new system by passing their own state laws – Indiana, Hawaii and Arizona. If you are traveling in Arizona, it can become even more confusing; the Navajo Indian Reservation, which covers a large part of the state, does observe Daylight Savings. However, the Hopi Indian Reservation, which is contained entirely within the Navajo reservation, does not observe time changes!

Today, over 70 countries throughout the world practice daylight Savings; Japan is the only major industrialized nation not to do so. Even research stations in Antarctica observe the practice, where the concept is virtually meaningless as there is no daylight in the winter and there are months of constant daylight during the summer.

And there is the question of what to do with the extra hour. Some people maintain that it takes almost an hour to actually change the time on all the watches, clocks and electronic devices in their home! And not forgetting the timer on your VCR or the clock in your car, and the “time-stamp” message that’s recorded on your telephone answering machine. Fortunately, the time displayed on your home computer is usually programmed to change automatically twice a year.

What about the hour you lose, when the clocks go forward? As the English writer, Richard Whately put it – “Lose an hour in the morning and you will spend all day looking for it”. Officially, the time changes at 2 am on the day in question – the time being chosen as the one that would cause least disruption. Most people adjust their clocks sometime the day before, in order not to forget to do it, and most of us of course are asleep at 2 am anyway. It has been suggested many times that when we change the clocks, we should also change the batteries in our smoke detectors – an estimated 30% of homes in the United States have missing or worn out batteries.

Regardless of whether we agree with it or not, we have learnt to accept the change in our routine and to adjust our schedule and our life around the concept of having another hour of daylight. And there is no doubt that the tiny act of adjusting the clock hands forwards or backwards means improvements in health, the economy and productivity. Some studies have also demonstrated a decrease in crime and traffic accidents due to the changing of the time – it is statistically safer to travel home from work or school in the daylight. The Department of Transportation estimated that around $30 million is saved annually in traffic accident costs.

And the have been even greater since 2007, when Congress voted to extend the period of Daylight Savings Time for an extra four weeks. Since then, the time has been changed in March and November, rather than April and October, with a resulting significant reduction in energy usage. If you want to learn more about Daylight Savings Time – and time in general – a great place to visit is the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. In addition to displaying over 12,000 timepieces of every conceivable kind, on the two days each year when the time changes, the museum has a full program of events celebrating Daylight Savings.

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