The history of daylight saving time

Daylight saving time is literally meant as a time for saving daylight hours. Attempts to harness daylight hours go back over a century, with motivations rooted in patriotism, practicality and public opinion.

Twice a year, time changes sweep across the country. Clocks spring forward one hour in the spring to begin daylight saving time and then fall back an hour in the fall to end it.

"The real goal of daylight saving time is to move the hours of human activity to make the best use of daylight," said David Prerau, computer scientist and author of "Seize the Daylight". 

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While today’s night owls may scoff at the notion, this wrangling of time to make the most use of daylight dates back over a century, with motivations — and controversy — rooted in patriotism, practicality and public opinion.  

Who invented daylight saving time?

According to Prerau, the concept of daylight saving time can be attributed to three people.

The first was Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century. Franklin realized that waking up closer to sunrise gave him more hours of daylight to light his home and helped him save energy, as he used fewer smoky and expensive candles.

The second was George Bernard Hudson in late 19th-century New Zealand. Hudson was an entomologist and astronomer who proposed the idea of moving clocks forward to the Wellington Philosophical Society.

The third person was William Willett in the early 20th-century United Kingdom. A builder and member of the Royal Astronomical Society, Willett introduced a bill in British Parliament to officially enact a time change.

While none of the three saw their idea come to fruition in their lifetimes, the idea was later revived for an unexpected purpose — war.

Why was daylight saving time created?

Some of the first people to adopt daylight saving time were the Germans during World War I, according to Prerau. 

"The Germans actually adopted daylight saving time first to help save energy during World War I in 1916," he said. "Once they did that, the British followed suit almost immediately after having rejected it for many years."

According to Prerau, countries on both sides of the war — including the United States — adopted the time change, as well.

"I assume they were trying to do anything they could to save energy," said Prerau. "It was a big issue during the war, and this was a way that they would work to save energy."

Did farmers support or oppose daylight saving time?

Once World War I ended, pushback against daylight saving time grew — particularly from farmers.

"This is against what most people think because most people think that daylight saving time was put in for farmers – it’s the exact opposite," said Prerau. "Farmers have been the leading group against daylight saving time."

According to Prerau, at a time when most of the country was still rural, the people successfully had Congress repeal the time change.

Nixed on the federal level, the time change was only able to occur on the local level...for a while.  

When did daylight saving time begin in the U.S. – again?

In the mid-20th century, the country experienced a bit of a déjà vu.

"As soon as World War II started, the British and the Germans, who were fighting each other at the beginning — the major countries fighting each other — both adopted daylight saving time for the war effort," said Prerau.

When the U.S. joined World War II, the country put on daylight saving time for the war effort, as well. But after the war ended, the time change was once again repealed by Congress.

In contrast to the sentiment toward time changes after World War I, after World War II, more people were supportive of daylight saving time, and many localities began to adopt it.

How did daylight saving time become standard?

The adoption of daylight saving time was spotty across the country, according to Prerau, varying from state to state and town to town and causing plenty of confusion.

For example, during a 35-mile bus ride between Steubenville, Ohio to Moundsville, West Virginia, a traveler would cross seven time zones. 

In 1966, the federal government passed a law called the Uniform Time Act to standardize time across the country.

According to Prerau, the law said that a state doesn't have to have daylight saving time if it doesn't want to; but if it does want to have daylight saving time, it has to be statewide. 

Also, the states with daylight saving time would need to start on the same date and end on the same date, with the federal government setting those start and end dates.

"So, that's the law we have today," Prerau said.

Which states do not observe daylight saving time?

Daylight saving time is now observed in 48 states, with the outliers being Hawaii and Arizona. According to Prerau, the two outliers have specific reasons that make them different from any other state.

"Hawaii is by far the most southern state, the state closest to the equator," said Prerau. "As we get close to the equator, the sunrises and sunsets don’t change very much over the year. Therefore, they have much less benefit of daylight saving time than most other states."

Additionally, Hawaii’s distance from the mainland keeps the state isolated and less concerned about matters with neighboring states.

"Arizona has a whole different situation," said Prerau.

He noted that the two most populous parts of the state, Phoenix and Tucson, are so hot in the summer that the last thing they want to have in the summer is more daylight.

Arizona is also house-divided. 

According to Indian Country Today, the Navajo Nation in the northeast region of the state does observe daylight saving time. However, the Hopi Nation, which is encircled by the Navajo Nation’s territory, opts out of the time change.

Will daylight saving time end or become permanent?

Daylight saving time has sown divisions within the larger U.S.

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In January 2021, some members of Congress introduced a bill hoping to end the era of "springing forward" and "falling back" for many states. Called the Sunshine Protection Act, it sought to end standard time and make daylight saving time permanent.

Will such permanence come to pass? Given the track record of changing views on daylight saving time throughout history, only time will tell.

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