Fall Back: The history of daylight-saving time
Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, most Americans will be setting their clocks back one hour this Sunday, Nov. 5, at 2 a.m. (or doing it before they go to bed on Saturday night). Since 2007, daylight-saving time (DST) begins the second Sunday of March and ends on the first Sunday in November.
DST is touted as an attempt to save energy: Changing the clocks during spring and summer months “moves” an hour of daylight from early morning, when many people are still asleep, to the evening, when people are generally at home and more likely to use artificial lights and other electric appliances.
But, why change the clocks at all? Is it really worth having to readjust the body’s internal clock by an hour twice a year? Who came up with this idea, anyway, and why?
Benjamin Franklin is often credited with coming up with the idea of what we now call daylight-saving time. It is true that, as an American delegate in Paris in 1784, Mr. Franklin published an essay titled “An Economical Project,” in which he made the simple argument that natural light is cheaper than artificial light.
What many people either forget or never knew, however, is that Mr. Franklin’s essay was written, like much of his work, rather tongue-in-cheek: It was a joke.
In the essay, Mr. Franklin, knowing that Parisians were notorious for sleeping in, wrote that he was awakened by accident at 6 one morning, only to “discover” that the sun was shining at that hour.
This got his scientific brain working, and he calculated that if he had slept until noon, as was usual in Paris, and then stayed awake six hours later in the evening, he would have “wasted” the free daylight and instead would have had to pay for artificial light.
Mr. Franklin went on to offer some “regulations” that might aid in an attempt to save money. These included a tax on every window built with shutters, rationing candles, limiting coaches on the streets after sunset, and ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise to wake everyone up.
“Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening,” he wrote.
It was not until the 20th Century that Mr. Franklin’s idea of making better use of the daylight hours — “saving” daylight — was actually put into practice, however.
The practice of setting the clocks ahead one hour in the spring in order to make better use of the daylight hours was first put into action during World War I as in effort to save fuel.
At 11 p.m. on April 30, 1916, Germany and Austria became the first countries to mandate national time changes. Other European countries immediately followed suit, and even Britain admitted it was a good idea and implemented the practice three weeks later.
The United States, however, did not establish daylight-saving time until 1918. An act of Congress established standard time zones throughout the country and set daylight-saving time on March 19, 1918. Clocks remained an hour “ahead” for two straight years.
The act was repealed in 1919, even though President Woodrow Wilson tried to veto it. Daylight-saving time then became optional for states or municipalities, so for awhile, cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago stayed on daylight-saving time, while other parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois reverted to standard time.
Then came World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted year-round daylight-saving time, known then as “war time,” from Feb. 2, 1942, until Sept. 30, 1945.
The law was again repealed when the need to conserve fuel for the war effort no longer existed. From 1945 until 1966, there was no federal law regarding daylight-saving time; it was again the decision of individual states and/or localities, leading to fairly widespread confusion.
For example, in 1961, the Committee for Time Uniformity, a lobbying group organized by the transportation industry, discovered that on a 35-mile stretch of Route 2 between Moundsville, W.Va., and Steubenville, Ohio, motorists had to endure seven time changes.
Uniform Time Act
It was the Interstate Commerce Commission, looking out for the interests of the transportation industry and, to a lesser degree, the broadcasting industry, that ultimately pushed for standardization.
The Uniform Time Act was passed in 1966, creating a national daylight-saving time that would start the last Sunday in April and end the last Sunday in October every year. Any state that wished to exempt itself could do so by passing a state law.
In 1972, the law was revised so those states with more than one time zone could exempt just the parts of the state within one of the zones.
Arizona (with the exception of the Navajo Nation) and Hawaii, and the territories of Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa are the only places in the U.S. that do not observe DST, but instead stay on “standard time” all year long.
The federal law was amended once again in 1986, mandating that daylight-saving time start the first Sunday in April, rather than the last.
In 2007, DST was again extended so that it now lasts from the second Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November.
So, most of the nation will try to adjust to “falling back” an hour before going to bed on Saturday night (or scrambling to do it Sunday morning). It will be slightly lighter upon awakening in the morning (for a little while, anyway), but darker earlier in the evening.
For those who lament the end of daylight-saving time, there is one consolation: an extra hour of sleep.
This archived story was written by former Weston Forum editor Kim Donnelly.