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Daylight Saving Time its Orgins and History

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Daylight saving time is where clocks are turned forward, usually by one hour, in the spring and turned back again in autumn or fall. This gives an extra hour of daylight in the evening and less daylight in the early morning during the warmer months. Daylight isn’t actually saved but transferred from one end of the day to the other. Thus “daylight shifting” would be a more accurate term than daylight saving.

Why do we go through this process? The main reason is to save fuel. Later sunrise and sunset times usually save electricity as artificial light is needed for an hour less in the evening. It also means a reduction in road accidents and assaults as fewer people are travelling home after dark. There is time after dinner to mow the lawn, go for a walk or bike ride, play sport, or shop before nightfall. Daylight saving time is favored by retail, tourist, and other businesses as it usually means an increase in sales. These are some of the reasons about 70 countries around the world use daylight saving time in the summer months.

Not everyone likes daylight saving time. It is favored by most people living in large cities. However, those in regional and rural areas are generally against it, especially in farming communities. Farm work starts at dawn regardless of what the clock says, and to have schools, shops, factories, and markets start an hour earlier in real time gives farmers an hour less to do their morning tasks. Also, in tropical areas, the benefits of daylight saving time are few, as day and night do not vary much in length, and fuel savings are minimal or non-existent.

The concept of daylight saving time initially came from America’s Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century. He was out for an early morning walk in London in the summer of 1770 when he saw no shops open and few people around despite the sun being up several hours. He felt it odd that people complained of the cost of candles, yet went to bed late and got up late. In Paris in 1784, he got home one night at 3am and didn’t realize his shutters hadn’t been closed. He woke at 6am to the sun pouring in through the window. He wrote a letter, “An economical project for diminishing the cost of light”, to the Journal of Paris, calculating that the city could save millions each year by people going to bed much earlier. It was largely a whimsical article and the idea didn’t go any further at that time. He never suggested altering the clocks and didn’t use the term “daylight saving time” or similar.

New Zealander George Hudson presented two papers, in 1895 and 1898, proposing that clocks be put forward two hours in the summer months. He mentioned cricket, gardening, cycling, and other outdoor activities as the main benefits. There was a fair amount of interest, especially in Christchurch. It is quite likely that other people proposed the idea of daylight saving time in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The champion of daylight saving time was English builder William Willett. He was out riding his horse in Petts Wood, Kent early one summer’s morning in 1905 when he noticed most houses still had their blinds shut despite broad daylight. It was much the same scenario as Franklin’s morning stroll 135 years earlier. The difference was that Willett decided to do something serious about it to try and rectify the problem. He published a booklet, “The Waste of Daylight”, in July 1907. He wrote of the advantages of extra recreation and exercise and estimated the annual savings to Great Britain and Ireland to be 2.5 million pounds a year.

His idea was controversial from the start. It had a great deal of support but a lot of opposition too. Businesses and banks favored it, some giving as a reason that clerks could play cricket after work. It would reduce the need for artificial light, saving businesses and households considerable sums. The medical fraternity supported him, saying the plan would be good for people’s eyesight, rickets, anemia and general health, and would lessen the use of licensed houses.

Resistance was just as widespread. Farmers were among the most vocal. They worked from dawn to dusk and couldn’t adjust their hours simply because the clock showed a different time. The cows were ready at dawn. Grass couldn’t be harvested with dew on it as the machinery wouldn’t work. International traders complained their trading times would be out of kilter, especially with American companies. Operating times of stock exchanges in London and New York overlapped by one hour, but with daylight saving time in Britain it would be zero. Scientists and astronomers were against the scheme, claiming it was difficult to compile data from continuously recording meteorological instruments. Parliament and the railways were divided on the issue.

Willett spent seven years and thousands of dollars trying to build up support. While the British kept heatedly debating daylight saving time in parliament, Germany quietly introduced it on 30 April 1916 to conserve energy for the war effort. Several other European countries started it on the same day. The United Kingdom finally brought it in on 21 May. By mid year most of Europe had daylight saving.

The situation in America was different as it still wasn’t directly involved in the war. However, there was plenty of campaigning and support for daylight saving time. Retailers and industrialists liked the idea. The burgeoning leisure and retail industries saw the value of an extra hour of daylight for baseball games, amusement parks, and department stores. Car manufacturers supported it too, as it would give people an extra hour for motoring before nightfall. Fierce opposition came from farmers and the railways. The United States joined the war on 6 April 1917 after its merchant ships came under heavy attack from the Germans. A daylight saving bill became law on 31 March 1918.

World War I finished later that year and most places abandoned daylight saving time after 1919 or 1920. A few countries kept it for the entire interwar period, including the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as parts of Canada and the United States. Keen to save fuel, many countries adopted it again during World War II. Some didn’t turn back their clocks at all for several years in the 1940s. Two hours of daylight saving in summer, called double daylight saving time, and one hour in winter was popular. Daylight saving time was often called War Time during this period.

After the war, nearly everyone soon abandoned daylight saving time. Parts of America and Canada are the only areas to have had daylight saving time in the entire postwar period. The United Kingdom has had it in all years except 1968-1971 when it switched to Central European Time (GMT+1) and consequently didn’t have separate daylight saving time.

In the United States, daylight saving time was a state and local issue. Some areas had it and other didn’t. On a train or road trip of a few hours, a person could pass through several time zones. People could live in one zone and work or go to school in another. On one occasion, workers belonging to different companies in a single building were on two separate times. Daylight saving time became a federal issue in 1966 with the Uniform Time Act. Since then, the whole country has had daylight saving time except Arizona (apart from the Navajo Nation) and Hawaii, with Indiana making the move in 2005.

Most of Europe resumed daylight saving time in the 1970s and early 1980s, especially at the time of the energy crises. Many countries in Central and South America, the Middle East, and Asia have or have had it, including China who used it from 1986 to 1991. Only a handful of African countries have daylight saving time. The 70 or so countries that currently use daylight saving time are mainly the advanced economies in the northern hemisphere and their neighbors.

Daylight saving time remains as controversial as it was when first practised early last century. People either seem to like it or hate it. Some countries have opted in and out of daylight saving time on a number of occasions. Uruguay leads the way, having had eleven episodes, closely followed by Portugal with ten. Both currently use it.

More about this author: Chris Pearce

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