Hidden History: the origins of Daylight Savings Time

Mon Nov 05, 2018

Sunday, November 4 sees the end of Daylight Savings Time (DST). This means that all clocks in the U.S. will adjust one hour backwards, returning to standard time after advancing forward one hour in the previous spring. The rationale behind DST is that ­in areas of the world both north and south of the tropics, daylight lasts longer in the summer and shorter in the winter (becoming more pronounced the further an area is from the tropics). In effect, the practice of DST allows for a greater amount of sunlight for standard “nine to five” workers, at the cost of a clock upset twice a year. Proponents of DST will also make the claims that it leads to decreased energy consumption in the forms of lighting and heating, but these claims are heavily disputed.

Regardless of the rationale or supposed impacts of DST, how did this tradition actually get started?

The story of DST begins with a man named George Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist. Hudson worked a standard shift job at a local post office and used his leisure time after work to collect insects, leading him to heavily value the presence of sunlight after his job. He was so passionate about being able to pursue this passion that, in 1895, he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing a two-hour daylight saving shift, with the rationale that “the early-morning daylight would be utilized, and a long period of daylight leisure would be made available in the evening for cricket, gardening, cycling, or any other outdoor pursuit desired.” Unfortunately, the society rejected Hudson’s offer, citing it as being too confusing and disruptive to the established rhythm of everyday life.

Independent of Hudson, an Englishman by the name of William Willett would also conceive of DST in 1905 after lamenting over his observation that many Londoners slept through a large part of the summer daylight. Similar to Hudson, Willett was also frustrated at his evening hours after work being cut off by dusk - golf in this case. Willett thus proposed to the British Parliament that the clock advance during the summer months, but this initiative also failed to become law, despite the support of several members of Parliament.

The first successful adoption of DST would not come until 1916 in the German Empire. Already two years into World War I (WWI), the German Empire (alongside its ally the Austro-Hungarian Empire) implemented the “sommerzeit” (German for DST) national on April 30, 1916 primarily as a means of conserving coal during wartime by shifting everyone’s schedules forward an hour to take advantage of daylight hours. Soon, the rest of Europe followed in this practice, with the U.S. adopting “An Act to Preserve Daylight and Provide Standard Time in the United States” being formally enacted on March 19, 1918.

After WWI’s end, many countries would actually end up temporarily abandoning the practice, leading to a period of confusion and intermittent, inconsistent practice of DST. The observance of DST would become a local choice, in states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island or cities such as New York and Chicago. During World War II (WWII), U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would implement “War Time” for the duration of the war once again as a means of conserving resources, but the post-war period returned the country to a period of confusion and inconsistency. It would take the Cold War and the global energy crisis of the 1970s for the U.S. (and the rest of the world) to finally pass laws formally establishing the iteration of DST we see today.

So, that is the story of how one man’s bug-catching hobby gave you an extra hour of sleep.


Image courtesy of Library of Congress




Teaser Media
Appears in
2018 - Fall - Issue 9