The History of Daylight Saving Time | History Hit

The History of Daylight Saving Time

Chester Burleigh Watts turning back the hands of a clock at the Naval Observatory in 1918, possibly in honor of the first Daylight Savings Time.
Image Credit: Hum Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Used to save energy and make better use of daylight, Daylight Saving Time (DST) is used in more than 70 countries worldwide and affects over a billion people every year. It sees clocks advanced for the warmer months of the year so that nightfall comes at a later hour. In Britain, the changing of the clocks in March brings with it an extra hour of evening daylight and ushers in the start of spring.

The beginning and end dates of Daylight Saving Time vary from country to country. However, many countries, primarily those along the equator whose sunrise and sunset times change little, don’t observe the custom. This used to be the norm globally, with the implementation of official and systematic daylight savings being a relatively modern phenomenon.

So, how and why did Daylight Saving Time originate?

The concept of ‘adjusting’ time isn’t new

Ancient civilisations similarly adjusted their daily schedules according to the sun. It was a more flexible system that DST: days were often divided into 12 hours regardless of daytime, so each daylight hour became progressively longer during the spring and was shorter in the autumn.

The Romans kept time with water clocks that had different scales for different times of the year. For example, on the winter solstice, the third hour from sunrise (hora tertia) started at 09:02 and lasted 44 minutes, whereas during the summer solstice it started at 06:58 and lasted 75 minutes.

The 14th century onwards saw a certain hour’s length formalised, with the result that civil time no longer varied according to the season. However, unequal hours are sometimes still used today within traditional settings such as the monasteries of Mount Athos and in Jewish ceremonies.

Benjamin Franklin jokingly suggested a variation of it

Franklin’s light-hearted observations took years to formally implement in the US. In this picture, Senate Sergeant at Arms Charles P. Higgins turns forward the Ohio Clock for the first Daylight Saving Time, while Senators William M. Calder (NY), Willard Saulsbury, Jr. (DE), and Joseph T. Robinson (AR) look on, 1918.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Franklin coined the proverb “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”. During his time as an American envoy to France (1776-1785), he published a letter in the Journal de Paris in 1784 that suggested Parisians economise on candles by waking up earlier and making better use of the morning sunlight.

However, contrary to common belief, Franklin was not the first to suggest seasonal time change. Indeed, 18th-century Europe didn’t even keep a precise schedule until rail transport and communication networks were made commonplace. His suggestions were not even serious: the letter was satirical and also proposed taxing window shutters, rationing candles and firing cannons and ringing church bells to wake the public.

It was first proposed by a British-born New Zealander

Entomologist George Hudson first proposed modern Daylight Savings Time. This was because his shift-work job gave him leisure time to collect insects, with the result being that he valued after-hours daylight. In 1895, he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society that proposed a two-hour daylight saving shift forward in October and backward in march. Considerable interest was proposed in Christchurch. However, the idea was never formally adopted.

Many publications also credited English builder William Willett, who, during a pre-breakfast ride in 1905, observed how many Londoners slept through the sunlit hours of the morning during the summer. He was also an avid golfer who disliked cutting his round short when it got dark.

William Willett is remembered in Petts Wood, London, by a memorial sundial, which is always set on DST (Daylight Saving Time).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a proposal that he published two years later, he suggested advancing the clock during the summer months. MP Robert Pearce took up the proposal and introduced the first Daylight Saving Bill to the House of Commons in 1908. However, the bill and many bills in succeeding years did not become law. Willett lobbied for the proposal until he died in 1915.

A Canadian city was the first to implement the change

A little-known fact is that the residents of Port Arthur, Ontario – today’s Thunder Bay – turned their clocks forward by one hour, thus implementing the world’s first Daylight Savings Time period. Other areas of Canada soon followed suit including the cities of Winnipeg and Brandon in 1916.

A 1916 edition of the Manitoba Free Press recalls that Daylight Savings Time in Regina “proved so popular that bylaw now brings it into effect automatically.”

Germany first adopted Daylight Savings Time to support the war effort

Extract of a poster issued by the United Cigar Stores Company in the United States to promote daylight saving time in 1918 during World War One. The poster reads: “Saving Daylight! Set the clock ahead one hour and win the war! Save 1,000,000 tons of coal by using an extra hour of daylight!” 1918.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The first countries to formally adopt DST were the German Empire and its World War One ally Austria-Hungary in April 1916 as a way of conserving coal during wartime.

Britain, most of its allies and many European neutral countries quickly followed, while Russia waited until a year later and the US adopted the policy in 1918 as part of the Standard Time Act. The US also re-implemented the policy during World War Two.

It better suits industrialised, rather than agrarian societies

The benefits of Daylight Savings Time is a hot topic. While many people enjoy it for the extra light it gives them in the evenings, others have criticised the fact that those who go to school or work early in the morning often wake up in the dark.

It is widely accepted that Daylight Savings Time is most appropriate to industrialised societies where people work according to a fixed schedule, because the extra hour in the evening provides more time for industry workers to enjoy recreational time. Retailers also lobby for its implementation since it offers people more time to shop, and thus increases their profits.

However, in agrarian societies where people work based upon the sun’s cycle, it can create unnecessary challenges. Farmers have famously always been one of the biggest lobby groups against Daylight Savings Time since farming schedules are heavily influenced by factors such as morning dew and dairy cattle’s readiness to be milked.

James Rebanks joined me on the podcast to tell the history of his family farm in the Lake District hills. This was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. We talk about how it has transformed over time.
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Lucy Davidson