Daylight Saving Time 101

Claire Killian

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This Sunday, November 3, marks the one-hundred and first year that America observes daylight saving time (and that is the way it’s pronounced – not daylight savings time), but why do we spring forward and fall backward? The popular myth surrounding this weird funk of time is that it has something to do with agriculture, that in America’s agrarian past we needed to maximize the working day during the summer months and capitalize on all available sunlight. Some people even say it was Benjamin Franklin’s idea. These are the stories which many of us default to when asked why we do daylight saving time, and they could not be farther from the truth.

Who actually proposed daylight saving time? The concept of setting the clocks depending on the season is an old one, and can not be attributed to just one person. The first recorded suggestion of altering time to suit human needs, in a way which resembled our modern style, was in 1895 when an entomologist from New Zealand named George Hudson proposed a two-hour clock shift so that he could have more time after work in the summer to hunt for bugs. His idea was not popularly received and so daylight saving time went dormant until seven years later, when William Willett (the great-great grandfather of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin) an English builder, suggested to the British parliament that they change the clocks to accommodate the seasons. The idea was shot down in parliament, despite being championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Winston Churchill. Willett did not take the defeat well, and continued to fight for daylight saving time until his death in 1915.

Until 1915, every attempt at daylight saving time was laughed at or denied. It was an extremely abstract theory, and it seemed strange to assume that people could just change time (a preposterous idea). That was, until 1916, in the middle of the first World War, when the German government was looking for ways to save money on energy. The government chose to implement Willett’s idea, and effectively forced the country to comply to the new time standards. While the British had been bickering back and forth over the idea, the Germans did it almost overnight. Back then, coal was the main source of energy, so maximizing daylight working hours really did provide a tangible difference.

On March 9, 1918 the USA passed it’s first daylight saving time law. Included in the same bill was the Standard Time Act which set out defined time zones within the country. It wasn’t just America and Germany though, by the end of WWI practically every nation that had been involved in the conflict had some sort of daylight saving time legislation. We adopted the measure because of how energy-efficient it made us, but also because it just made it easier to keep up with the Germans during the war. Absolutely nothing to do with agriculture or founding fathers.

In the last few years daylight saving time has fallen under fire, given that it doesn’t actually save that much energy any more and it has some weird health effects. Directly after daylight saving time, there is a spike in heart attacks and car accidents. People around the equator, because of the pretty even amount of sunlight they get during the year, generally tend to be against daylight saving time because it doesn’t really effect them, however the further north you go, the more support it tends to have. In the United States, only one state, Hawaii, disregards daylight saving time in its entirety. Florida passed the Sunshine Protection Act which would put the state in a permanent state of daylight saving time. Arizona is the most confusing state, where because of the scorching daytime summer temperatures residents want a reverse-daylight saving bill which would give them more time in the cooler evenings to enjoy themselves. Individual Native American reservation, particularly in Arizona, observe their own time settings, so if you were to drive directly across the state you could be in any number of time zones within it’s borders.

Despite it’s weird past, daylight saving time shows no signs of going away. Whether or not you support it, I think everyone can agree that they’re looking forward to that extra hour of sleep on Sunday night.