Daylight savings time: Same as it ever was?

Tom Fink

Spring forward, fall back, spring forward, fall back, spring forward fall back.

In addition to it being my daily workout regime, it’s also is the rule of thumb with regards to daylight savings time.

Come spring, set clocks ahead an hour.

Come fall, set clocks back an hour.

While this modestly impressive form of time-traveling may be in part to make allowances for the lengthening and shortening of the days, where and when did the practice of bi-annual clock meddling begin?

Although modern daylight savings time (henceforth to be referred to as DST) has only been used for about 100 years, ancient civilizations are known to have engaged in comparable practices thousands of years ago.

For example, the Roman water clocks used different scales for different months of the year to adjust the daily schedules to the solar time.

Many sources cite Benjamin Franklin with being the first to suggest seasonal time change, although the idea expressed by the American inventor and politician in 1784 can hardly be described as fundamental for the development of contemporary DST.

Further, this idea didn’t even involve turning the clocks.

In a letter to the editor of the Journal of Paris, which was entitled “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light,” Franklin simply suggested that Parisians could economize candle usage by getting people out of bed earlier in the morning, and what’s more, Franklin meant it as a joke. This would be like me suggesting the addition of an eighth day of the week between Saturday and Sunday called “Finkday” to give everyone a three-day weekend, and for the idea to catch on.

That’s not a bad idea, now that I think about it...

Franklin’s tongue-in-cheek suggestions aside, DST is widely attributed to New Zealand scientist George Vernon Hudson and British builder William Willett.

In 1895, Hudson presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society, proposing a two-hour shift forward in October and a two-hour shift back in March. While there was some early interest in the idea, it wasn’t followed through at the time.

In 1905, independently from Hudson, British builder William Willett suggested setting the clocks ahead 20 minutes on each of the four Sundays in April, and then switching them back by the same amount on each of the four Sundays in September, a total of eight time switches per year, and unlike Franklin, I’m pretty sure Willett didn’t mean this as a joke.

Willett’s Daylight Saving plan did catch the attention of the British Member of Parliament Robert Pearce, who introduced a bill to the House of Commons in February 1908. The first Daylight Saving Bill was subsequently drafted in 1909, presented to Parliament several times and examined by a select committee. However, the idea was opposed by many, especially farmers of the day, so the bill was never made into a law.

Elsewhere in the world, the idea of springing forward and falling back was beginning to catch on.

Germany and Austria were the first countries to officially use DST in 1916, but it is a little-known fact that a few hundred Canadians beat the German Empire by eight years. On July 1, 1908, the residents of Port Arthur, Ontario (today’s Thunder Bay), turned their clocks forward by one hour to start the world’s first DST period.

Other locations in Canada soon followed suit, and by April 23, 1914, Regina in Saskatchewan implemented DST. The cities of Winnipeg and Brandon in Manitoba did the same on April 24, 1916. According to an April 3, 1916, edition of the Manitoba Free Press, Daylight Saving Time in Regina “proved so popular that bylaw now brings it into effect automatically.”

The idea did not catch on globally however until Germany introduced DST in 1916.

Clocks in the German Empire, and its ally Austria, were turned ahead by one hour on April 30, 1916 — two years into World War I, with the rationale being to minimize the use of artificial lighting to save fuel for the war effort.

Within a few weeks, the idea was followed by the United Kingdom, France, and many other countries. Most of them reverted to standard time after World War I, and it wasn’t until the next World War that DST made its return in most of Europe.

In 1942, at the height of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reintroduced the measure, instituting year-round daylight saving time in the United States. Referred to as “War Time,” DST was in force continuously from Feb. 9, 1942 to Sept. 30, 1945.

During this time, the US time zones were called “Eastern War Time,” “Mountain War Time,” “Central War Time,” and “Pacific War Time.” Following the surrender of Japan in mid-August 1945, the time zones were relabeled “Peace Time.”

From 1945 to 1966, there were no uniform rules for DST in the US, which —understandably — caused widespread confusion, especially for trains, buses, and the broadcasting industry.

As a result, the Uniform Time Act of 1966 was established. While granting U.S. states the ability to opt out of DST, the law also provided a framework for a nation-wide, synchronized DST schedule, starting on the last Sunday of April and ending on the last Sunday of October.

During the 1973 oil embargo, the U.S. Congress ordered a year-round DST period lasting from January 1974 to April 1975, with the rationale being to study the effects of seasonal time change on energy consumption.

Following staunch opposition from the public and the realization that the measure yielded only modest energy savings, the plan was soon amended to allow for a return to standard time during the winter months.

After the energy crisis was over in 1976, the DST schedule in the U.S. was revised several times throughout the years.

From 1987 to 2006, the country observed DST for about seven months each year, with the current schedule introduced by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and having been followed since 2007.

Today, daylight saving time is used in more than 70 countries worldwide, and affects over one billion people every year — that’s a lot of clocks!

So, while you’re remembering to set your clocks back one hour before going to bed Saturday night, keep in mind the long road it took for us to get where we’re at with daylight savings time, enjoy the extra hour of sleep Sunday morning, and keep your fingers crossed on that three-day weekend idea!

This Week's Circulars