Why Do We Have Daylight Saving (*not Savings) Time?

7 in 10 Americans hate resetting their clocks twice a year. So how did this unpopular tradition come about?

Why Do We Have Daylight Saving (*not Savings) Time?
Photo by Djim Loic / Unsplash

Fall is a transitional time of year. The leaves change color, T-shirt days turn to sweater weather, and pumpkin spice lattes make their annual appearance.

It’s also the end of Daylight Saving (not Savings, as we all say) Time (DST), when we “fall back,” or set our clocks back one hour — and the second time each year that we mess with our circadian rhythm, and our sleep patterns.

The sleep disturbances caused by DST are disruptive enough that last year, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a position statement in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine supporting a fixed standard time. They wrote, “Current evidence best supports the adoption of year-round standard time, which aligns best with human circadian biology and provides distinct benefits for public health and safety.”

Not only that, 7 in 10 Americans would prefer a fixed time year-round. So how did this rather unpopular tradition come about?

DST began as an energy policy during World War I

Though Benjamin “Early to Bed, Early to Rise” Franklin is often credited with the idea for daylight saving, his suggestion that the city of Paris could save millions on candle wax if its residents would just wake up and go to bed earlier was made in jest, according to the Franklin Institute.

Around 1905 an Englishman named William Willett first proposed the idea that the United Kingdom should move its clocks forward by 80 minutes between April and October so that more people could enjoy the plentiful sunlight. However, he could not convince the British Parliament to make the change.

It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1916, that Germany became the first country to enact daylight saving as a way to conserve fuel during World War I. Shortly thereafter, the rest of Europe came on board, and in March of 1918 the U.S. followed suit.

American farmers did not lobby for daylight saving to have more time to work in the fields; in fact, they were strongly opposed to the time switch when it was first implemented in 1918. The sun, not the clock, dictated their schedules, and daylight saving was very disruptive to their agrarian ways (not to mention their circadian clocks).

Though President Woodrow Wilson wanted to keep daylight saving after WWI ended, the large rural population of farmers objected, partly because it would mean losing an hour of morning light. So it was abolished until 1942, in the midst of World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt reinstated daylight saving time year-round—again with the intention of saving energy. He called it "War Time," and it lasted until 1945.

After that, it was a free-for-all

After 1945, time change decisions were left to each state. Some kept it, others abandoned it. Things got really confusing.

Daylight saving time finally became standardized with the passage of the Uniform Time Act of 1966, which mandated standard time across the country within established time zones. It stated that clocks would advance one hour at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday in April and turn back an hour at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday in October.

In 2007, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 went into effect, expanding the length of daylight saving time by four weeks (changing the start to the second Sunday in March and ending on the first Sunday in November, which is the current timing).

The lone supporters of daylight saving? Retail and recreational businesses

Just for the record, these days, the evidence for energy savings is scant. According to time-change expert Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time,  “We now have many more ways to consume energy, including running air conditioners and TV sets at home. We also consume more gas while we drive around to enjoy that bonus hour.”

Business owners are the only holdouts who champion daylight saving because they understand a basic truth: If you give workers daylight when they leave their jobs, they are much more apt to stop and shop on their way home.

"Daylight saving is a loser as an energy plan,” said Downing, “but it's a fantastic retail spending plan."

So that’s the history of daylight saving time. Aren’t you glad you asked?