6 Illuminating Facts about Daylight Saving Time

Spring forward, fall back

You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe Daylight Saving Time.

—Dave Barry

Humans have long sought to control time. While it’s generally considered impossible to bend time to our will, there are two days of the year when we have a little sway over the clock.

Most of the United States and Canada begin Daylight Saving Time at 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday in March and revert to standard time on the first Sunday in November. Each time zone switches at a different time.

Daylight saving time is loathed as much as it is loved but these six facts might help you see the time warp in a whole new light.

Cave Creek Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Ben Franklin didn’t invent Daylight Saving Time

Ben Franklin is often credited as the inventor of daylight saving time—after all, the concept seems on-brand for the founding father who once championed early waking and bedtimes as the key to success.

It’s a myth that Franklin invented daylight saving time though he did once suggest a similar idea. In 1784, Franklin (then living in France) wrote a letter to the Journal de Paris suggesting that French citizens could conserve candles and money by syncing their schedules with the sun. Franklin’s proposal—wittily written and considered a joke by many historians—didn’t recommend adjusting clocks; the idea was to start and end the day with the sun’s rising and setting, regardless of the actual time.

Franklin’s proposal didn’t get far but nearly 100 years later another science-minded thinker devised the daylight saving time strategy we’re familiar with today. George Vernon Hudson, a postal worker and entomologist living in New Zealand presented the basics of the idea in 1895.

Hudson’s version moved clocks ahead two hours in the spring to extend daylight hours; for him, the biggest benefit of a seasonal time shift would be longer days in which he could hunt for bugs after his post office duties were finished. Hudson’s proposal was initially ridiculed but three decades later, in 1927, New Zealand’s Parliament gave daylight saving a shot as a trial and the Royal Society of New Zealand even awarded Hudson a medal for his ingenuity.

Lodi, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Only 35 percent of countries adjust their clocks seasonally

Germany paved the way for daylight saving time in 1916 becoming the first country to enact Hudson’s idea as an energy-saving move amid World War I. While many countries followed suit—mostly in North America, Europe, parts of the Middle East, and New Zealand—some of the world’s 195 countries didn’t. In fact, around the globe, it’s now more common to not make clock adjustments, especially in countries close to the equator which don’t experience major seasonal changes in day length.

In total, around 70 countries observe the time shift though even in the U.S. where daylight saving time has been a standard practice mandated by federal law since 1966, two states don’t participate: Arizona and Hawaii.

Brooks County Courthouse, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. The first U.S. daylight saving time was a disaster

Marching into World War I, the U.S. adopted the European strategy of rationing energy by adjusting civilian schedules. With more daylight hours, homes and businesses could somewhat reduce their reliance on electricity and other fuels redirecting them instead to the war effort.

But in the early part of the 20th century timekeeping across the country was far from consistent so in March 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation that created the country’s five time zones. That same month on Easter Sunday daylight saving time went into effect for the first time—though the government’s efforts to create consistent clocks were initially a mess.

Holiday celebrations were thrown off by the time changes and Americans lashed out with a variety of complaints believing the time change diminished attendance at religious services, reduced early morning recreation, and provided too much daylight which supposedly destroyed landscaping.

The time shift was temporarily repealed in 1919 at the war’s end and wouldn’t be seen again on the federal level until World War II. However, some cities and states picked up the idea of adjusting their clocks in spring and fall as they saw fit.

Seaside, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. In the U.S., daylight saving time once had a different nickname

Because of its association with energy rationing during World War I, daylight saving time originally had a different nickname: wartime. When the U.S. became involved in World War II nearly two decades later, wartime returned and was in place year-round from February 1942 until September 1945 when it was ditched at the war’s end.

The time change earned its modern title in 1966 when Congress passed the Uniform Time Act which further standardized time zones and standardized the start and end dates for daylight saving time among other things. Many countries that follow daylight saving time use the same terminology though the seasonal time change goes by different labels in some regions: In the U.K., Brits have British Summer Time (BST).

5. Dairy cows (and farmers) aren’t big fans

Daylight saving lore has it that the spring and fall clock changes provide the biggest benefit for farms though if cows could speak they might say otherwise. Farmers—who supposedly benefit from the extra hour of light in the afternoon—have heavily lobbied against the time change since it was first enacted in 1918.

That’s partially because it’s confusing for livestock such as dairy cows and goats throwing off their feeding and milking schedules. Some farmers say the loss of morning light also makes it more difficult to complete necessary chores early in the day and impacts how they harvest and move crops to market.

While farmers have pushed to drop daylight saving time, some industries like the golf industry have campaigned to keep it for their benefit. The extra daylight is known for bringing more putters to the courses generating millions in golf gear sales and game fees. Other big business supporters include the barbecue industry (which sells more grills and charcoal in months with longer daylight hours) and candy companies (benefiting from longer trick-or-treating hours on Halloween).

St. Marys, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The 2 a.m. start time is all because of trains

President Woodrow Wilson knew that rolling clocks forward and backward twice a year would be somewhat disruptive so his 1918 wartime plan tried to be minimally bothersome. Instead of adjusting clocks arbitrarily at midnight in March and November, Wilson chose 2 a.m., a time when no passenger trains were running in New York City.

While the shift did impact freight trains there weren’t as many as there are today so daylight saving time was considered a relatively easy workaround for the railroads. The 2 a.m. adjustment is still considered the least troublesome time today since most bars and restaurants are closed and the vast majority of people are at home, asleep—either relishing in or begrudgingly accepting their adjusted bedtime schedules.

Worth Pondering…

An extra yawn one morning in the springtime, an extra snooze one night in the autumn is all that we ask in return for dazzling gifts. We borrow an hour one night in April; we pay it back with golden interest five months later.

—Winston Churchill as quoted in David Prerau, Seize the Daylight: The Curious And Contentious Story of Daylight (2006)