Turn Back The Clock: Inside Daylight Saving Time

Turn Back The Clock: Inside Daylight Saving Time

November 03, 2016 | American History

The origin of Daylight Saving Time has been widely disputed and often misrepresented. Frequently blamed on farmers, the real history behind the practice is somewhat complicated.

Ancient scholars saw the value in adjusting their schedules based on the changing schedule of the Sun. The earliest civilizations, including those in Rome, Greece and Persia, had made some attempts to standardize the unit of time, but none were able to implement it effectively. When the Romans eventually developed a successful system of using water clocks to tell time, they included different scales for different months of the year. This practice was similar to our modern system of Daylight Saving Time, as it made use of the extra sunlight that certain seasons provided.

Franklin, Hudson and Willet

Despite common assumptions, Benjamin Franklin was not the first one to advocate for daylight saving time. He was often quoted recited the proverb “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”, which led to him being mistakenly branded with the concept of DST.  While he did see the value in making use of the light provided by the sun, it was New Zealand scientist George Vernon Hudson who formally suggested the idea. In 1895, Hudson presented a paper on the subject to the Wellington Philosophical Society.

He proposed the idea of a two-hour shift forward in October and a two-hour shift back in March.  Although his proposal garnered little traction, it set the stage for men like William Willet who, in 1905, suggested putting the clocks 20 minutes ahead on each of the four Sundays in April, then moving them back the four Sundays in September. The British builder’s plan piqued the interest of a government official, bolstering the idea’s legitimacy.

Robert Pearce, a member of the British Parliament, publicly endorsed Willet’s idea in 1908. Many people, primarily farmers, opposed the idea, and it was shelved in 1909. Ironically, it was eventually adopted informally in 1916, (in the US, not Great Britain) the year after William Willet died.

DST’s Role in World War I and II

The first country to formally enact Daylight Saving Time was Germany. During World War I, the Germans adjusted their clocks by an hour in order to conserve fuel for the ongoing war effort. Back home in the United States, President Woodrow Wilson signed “Fast Time” into law in 1918, to support the war effort in our country. The law was repealed seven months after its initial adoption and most countries reverted back to a non-Daylight Saving Time operation after the war was over. Europe and the United States would later go on to ratify the plan formally after World War II.

Daylight Saving Time, called "War Time", impacted the entire United States during the Second World War. Various time zones were implemented and named Eastern War Time, Mountain War Time, Central War Time and Pacific War Time. In 1945, when the war officially ended, the time zones were renamed in accordance with Peace Time and the plan became federal law.

Daylight Saving Time Evolves

The biggest proponents of Daylight Saving Time have always been the retail industry and the golf industry. Department stores love the extra hour of daylight in the evening. They benefit greatly, as people heading home from work have more time to stop and shop without worrying about returning home in the dark. Golfers also look forward to that extra daylight. The golf industry– by itself– has stated that one extra month of daylight savings is worth $400 million in additional green fees and equipment sales. 

Farmers, on the other hand, have always loathed the idea of DST. They rely on the light of the sun to tend to and harvest their crops. Most farms, private and commercial, adhere to strict deadlines regarding delivery of those crops. When the clocks get turned ahead, farmers lose a precious hour of sunlight to do the work that needs to be done before their produce can be loaded and shipped to its destination.

Until 1966, there were no standardized rules relating to the implementation of DST, leading to widespread confusion for various modes of public transportation, including buses and trains. Media platforms such as television and radio, which made use of broadcast mediums, also encountered scheduling conflicts as a result of the inconsistencies. This necessitated a single code that brought all of America under one cohesive system.

The U.S. Uniform Time Act of 1966 stated that Daylight Saving Time would start on the last Sunday of April, when people would put their clocks forward one hour, and end on the last Sunday of October, when they would revert them back one hour. This act was based, in large part, on the concerted efforts of The Chamber of Commerce and was warmly received by department stores across the country.

The law was not universally binding across all states however; states could opt out of Daylight Saving Time by passing an ordinance. Residents of Arizona (except those on the Navajo Nation), Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other territories do not participate in the practice.

 In 1985, retail lobbyists petitioned for an additional month of daylight saving and came back in 2005 for another month. The current energy policy regarding Daylight Saving Time was adopted in 2007, and dictates that Daylight Saving Time would start on the second Sunday in March and end on the first Sunday in November.