Daylight Saving Time: Why Does It Need Saving?

sunrise from space
Sunrise comes an hour later on Sunday, March 11, when daylight saving time begins.

Do you ever wonder about daylight saving time (DST)—you know, that one unavoidable Sunday in March when we spring forward into a day marred by being short on sleep? When I was a teenager I hated daylight saving time, that unfortunate national policy that stole my early morning sleep in the spring and my enjoyable evening sunlight in the fall.

“It’s such an underhanded and unfair form of torture,” my teenage self used to cry. “Who came up with such a cruel idea? Why does daylight need saving? What’s the point?”

From the various responses my rant received, I gained the vague idea that daylight saving time might be intended to help the farmers.

“And so the rest of us must struggle on in misery,” I used go away muttering.

A little research, though, suggests that daylight saving time is not really about helping the farmers at all. In today’s industrialized world, the people that DST really helps are the nine-to-five workers. DST gives daytime workers with set schedules an extra hour of light they can use to enjoy the outdoors during their summer leisure time.

It also turns out that, since I’m a night owl, I don’t hate daylight saving time. What I really hate is standard time, which is what we go back to in the winter to give us more light earlier in the day.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited as introducing the idea of DST in his 1784 essay titled “An Economical Project.” However, Franklin wasn’t exactly proposing DST. He was satirizing the current trend of sleeping in. He jokes about accidentally awaking at 6 a.m. and discovering the sun was already up. He then details his troubles in convincing others, including naturalists, that the sun rises before noon. Finally he proposes measures such as ringing church bells at dawn to get everyone out of bed earlier so that they might economize on oil lamp usage. The essay is funny, but it’s not a treatise on DST.

The true originator of modern-day DST was a New Zealander named George Hudson. A postal worker by day and an amateur entomologist by night, Hudson wanted more daylight in the evenings to collect and study his bugs. So in 1895 he presented a paper on the idea of daylight saving to the Wellington Philosophical Society.

In Britain, a builder by the name of William Willett picked up and ran with the idea. In 1907 he used his own resources to publish the pamphlet “The Waste of Daylight.” Through tireless campaigning, he gained the support of Robert Pearce, a member of British parliament who attempted to get DST passed into law. A young Winston Churchill was on board with the idea, which made it into a parliamentary select committee in 1909. But it would take a war—a great war—to make DST a British reality.

On April 30, 1916, Germany became the first country to adopt DST when it turned its clocks one hour ahead in order to minimize the use of artificial lighting and to save fuel. For the same reasons, Britain introduced DST on May 17, 1916, as part of the Defence of the Realm Act.

Many other countries subsequently adopted DST to help conserve fuel as part of their war efforts. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson signed DST into law in 1918. Before then, DST, or “Fast Time” as it was called, had been championed in the U.S. by the Pittsburgh industrialist Robert Garland, and that is why in this country Garland is often called the Father of Daylight Saving.

In 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted DST in a year-round format known as “War Time.” War Time ended (along with World War II) in 1945, and

after that schedules got a little disorganized in the U.S. Some cities and states kept DST, while others did not. The random adoption pattern created confusion and havoc, especially for trains, buses, and the broadcasting industry, so in 1966 Congress passed the Uniform Time Act, which established a national DST schedule. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 set the official start of DST on the second Sunday in March and the official end of DST on the first Sunday in November, and that’s the schedule that we follow today in the United States.

So DST, as it turns out, was championed by modern outdoor enthusiasts and fuel economists. The notion I got about DST being for the farmers was misinformed. In the early years, in fact, farmers tended to oppose DST, although today farmers are more neutral.

DST opponents do exist, but most of their arguments target the change of the clock rather than the hours themselves. The current DST opponents sound a lot like I did when I used to go into my teenage DST rants—it was the change and not the hours to which I objected.

Proponents of DST point to evidence that the later schedule saves on energy usage. The retail industry, especially the recreation industry, also benefits from DST. Morning traffic accidents are down a little during DST, since people tend to be more alert with the time change. And DST may even improve human health by giving people more time to exercise outdoors in the evening. These all sound like good things to me.

After doing the research, I’m going from hating DST to proposing that maybe it’s time to take the next step in DST history and consider making daylight saving hours permanent. I know I might be biased, since I’m a night owl, but adopting permanent DST would get rid of that nasty clock change. Plus we’d all get to sleep in an extra hour in the winter. And we’d put an end to teenage time rants!