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The Surprising History Behind Daylight Savings Time

We can trace the system back to a satirical essay by Benjamin Franklin.

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  • Photo Credit: José Pinto / Unsplash

Daylight Savings Time—also known as an annual period of confusion and readjusting. Unfortunately, it's also the time of year those of us who love curling up in bed dread: each spring, we lose an hour of sleep after setting the clocks ahead one hour. But to what end? Why was this system implemented in the first place? And where did the concept first come from?

The first kernel of the idea for Daylight Savings Time is often attributed to none other than Benjamin Franklin. However, that's not entirely accurate. While the polymath is known for several ingenious innovations, he didn't conceive of Daylight Savings Time as a serious system.

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What he did do was suggest Parisians save money on candles and lamp oil by altering their sleep schedules—in a satirical essay. The essay, "An Economical Project," was published in the Journal de Paris in the spring of 1784. It saw Franklin waxing poetic on the benefits of working by the light of the sun rather than by artificial light. He went on to propose several tongue-in-cheek regulations to bring Parisians out into the early hours of light, including taxing window shutters, limiting the amount of candles families could buy, posting guards to stop people from traveling the streets after sunset, and awakening the city with church bells and cannons at the time of sunrise.

Real steps towards Daylight Savings Time began to take shape a few decades later, in 1810. The Spanish National Assembly Cortes of Cádiz implemented a regulation which acknowledged seasonal changes by moving certain meeting times forward an hour during the period of May 1st to September 30th. However, no actual clocks were adjusted.

It wasn't until 1895 that the first modern model of Daylight Savings Time was put forth. In New Zealand, entomologist George Hudson presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society calling for a two-hour daylight-saving shift. The idea was also independently conceived by English builder William Willett in 1905, whose proposal was advanced by Parliament member Robert Pearce in 1908.

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The first city in the world to officially enact Daylight Savings Time was Port Arthur, Ontario, which did so on July 1st, 1908. On April 30th, 1916, the German Empire and Austria-Hungary were the first nations to adopt the system. Britain and several other European countries were quick to follow. Russia took up the practice the following year. It wasn't until 1918 that the United States of America embraced the process of Daylight Savings Time.

America's Standard Time Act was signed into law on March 19th, 1918. This act served to add additional daylight hours to the course of the day in order to save energy costs in the midst of World War I. The law further established the time zones used in America today. However, the portion of this law which concerned Daylight Savings Time was only in effect for roughly a year and a half. At the end of the Great War, that portion was repealed by Congress, despite the veto of President Woodrow Wilson.

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  • A poster encouraging people to write to Congress and lobby for Daylight Savings Time.

    Photo Credit: Library of Congress via US Department of Defense

The issue arose once more for America at the start of World War II. In February of 1942, Congress instated a national daylight saving time to conserve fuel and promote national security and defense. During this time, the tradition of springing clocks forward an hour became known as "war time." The nickname went so far as to become a part of the time zones as well, resulting in Eastern War Time, Pacific War Time, and so on.

In contrast to how we observe Daylight Savings Time today, the early to mid-20th century system was implemented year-round. If you think the citizens of America hate it now, that's nothing compared to its unpopularity back then. And none were quite so as unhappy as the farmers.

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It wasn't merely power that was lacking in a time of war. America also saw a shortage of food, which imposed a higher strain on farmers. Their objections stemmed from the precise nature of farm work. Cows, they said, were "delicately balanced" creatures, and the disruption of their schedules would produce less milk. Furthermore, farmers could not work their fields until the dew cleared, and Daylight Savings Time saw the moisture lingering until 10 AM. The adjustment in time would produce exhausted farm laborers with longer days and less to show for it.

Much to the relief of the farmers, once the war came to an end in 1945, Daylight Savings Time was once again repealed. Individual states once more had the power to establish their own standard time. Unfortunately, this lack of set rules of course resulted in a lot of confusion, especially for the industries of transportation and broadcasting.

In 1966, Congress stepped in to resolve the chaos of time management once and for all. They passed the Uniform Time Act, which set a standard time across the nation which superseded all local times. This law also established that Daylight Savings Time would last from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October.

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In the midst of the 1970s energy crisis, during which oil shortages and high prices plagued Western nations, America once again imposed Daylight Savings Time as a year-round system in 1973. However, there's no solid evidence that these changes had a significant effect on energy conservation. Official reports from the war time implementations of the 40s and a more recent study done in 2007 both reflect that energy consumption sees only a slight decline during Daylight Savings Time.

Over time, there have been minor changes here and there to the policy of Daylight Savings Time. In 2005, President George W. Bush changed the dates on which we "spring forward" and "fall back." Extending the window by a few weeks, we now observe Daylight Savings Time from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.

As of now, Daylight Savings Time is still a federal mandate. States can, however, opt out of the system by passing a state law. Neither Hawaii nor Arizona (excepting the Navajo Nation) observe Daylight Savings Time. Puerto Rico, Guam, and most other American territories also decline to observe the system.