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When and How Did Daylight Saving Time Begin

Daylight Saving Time: beloved in the fall, despised in the spring. While it might seem like a strange thing to do, changing the clocks by one hour depending on the season is a tradition that’s practiced around the world. But how did this strange idea become so prevalent? Here’s your quick guide to everything you want to know about the history of Daylight Saving Time (DST).

The first proposal

The very first mention of Daylight Saving Time came from a letter to the "Journal de Paris" written by Benjamin Franklin in 1784. In it, he suggests that by waking up with the Sun, the people of Paris could save "an immense sum" of money by using sunshine instead of candles for their lighting needs.

Because of this letter, many people credit Benjamin Franklin with the invention of DST. But though he might have created the idea, or at least was the first to write it down, he didn’t really mean it. The article was satirical. Other suggestions he included were:

  • There should be a tax implemented for every window with a shutter designed to keep out the sunlight.
  • Guards should be posted at candle shops to limit the number of candles that families can buy.
  • Guards should also stop all coaches in the streets after sunset.
  • When the sun rises, every bell in every church should ring to wake up the city so that no daylight is wasted. For heavy sleepers, cannons should also be fired in the streets.

Franklin might have been kidding, but his concept was solid. More than a century later, a real DST was proposed.

The first serious proposal

Dragonfly on the end of a plant at sunset
Credit: KraSochno/ Shutterstock 

George Hudson, a postal worker in New Zealand who was also a published and award-winning etymologist, spent his after-work hours hunting for bugs. Each fall he became frustrated with the lack of sunlight in the evening—after all, it's hard to study bugs in the dark!

So, to combat the (obviously widespread) problem, he submitted a proposal for a two-hour shift forward in October and a two-hour shift back in March to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1895. Although there was some interest in the idea, it was never implemented.

The first successful proposal

Seven years later and half the world away, a British builder named William Willett, independent of Franklin and Hudson's proposals, also came upon the idea to maximize daylight hours. He brought his plan to England’s Parliament in 1905 and received the backing of prominent figures like Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But despite its support, the proposal was rejected by the government. Willett continued to push for DST until his death in 1915.

The following year, the German government began looking for ways to save energy. World War I was well into its second year and was proving costly. The conservation of coal by any means would aid the war effort, and according to David Prerau's book "Seize the Daylight," adopting daylight saving time "would allow factories, businesses, and households to take advantage of sunlight for an additional hour each day." On April 30, 1916, Germany instituted the first "spring forward" time change.

Other countries followed suit

Up close view of Ben Ben clock tower during the day in London, England
Credit: Peter Nadolski/ Shuterstock

Germany's DST maneuver worked. The country was saving fuel on artificial lighting and was generally saving on their wartime economy. Within weeks, other European countries followed suit, including Germany's ally Austria-Hungary, France, and—yes—the United Kingdom, where some called it "Willett Time."

The United States officially adopted DST in 1918, but the law was initially met with fierce resistance from the people who didn’t enjoy big-government interfering with their lives. In 1919, the federal government backed off and allowed state and local governments to decide for themselves whether they’d follow DST.

Not for the farmers

It’s a common misconception that Daylight Saving Time was implemented to benefit agrarian interests, because presumably farmer workers could use the additional daylight to till their fields or tend to livestock. In fact, farmers despised DST. Regardless of what the clock said, they worked by the Sun. Dairy cows didn't alter their milking time by an hour, so the shifting times adversely affected farmers' shipping schedules. Harvesting still had to wait until the morning dew could dry, so farmers essentially lost an hour each morning while waiting for nature to catch up.

Ultimately, farmers were the driving force behind the federal government's decision to abandon its national DST policy in 1919, after WWI ended. They resolved to allow state and local governments to make the decision, which led to some states having multiple time-change dates. In one instance, the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota had laws enacting DST two weeks apart.

This confusion in the United States continued until 1966, when Congress passed the Uniform Time Act. This standardized the dates for DST while still allowing states (like Arizona and Hawaii) the option to remain on a standard time year-round.

Not everyone follows DST

Sunrise off beach in Puerto Rico
Credit: West Coast Scapes/ Shutterstock

Daylight Saving Time is still a hotly debated topic, and not everyone around the world falls back and springs forward each year. Only about 70 countries follow DST, and most fall in Europe and North America. Countries nearer to and below the equator do not participate, because daylight hours don’t significantly change throughout the year. Several U.S. territories also choose not to observe DST, including Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam.

And by the way, there is no 's' on the end of 'saving,' despite how often is is pronounced that way. Daylight Saving Time is all about saving daylight time—think of it that way while you adjust your clocks on Sunday.

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