The Explainer: Daylight Savings Time

By now, you’ve hopefully caught on: early yesterday morning, while we were sleeping unsuspectingly in our beds, Daylight Savings Time struck again. Although this happens twice a year, every now and then I ask myself the question: What the hell is up with Daylight Savings Time, anyway? Is it the “biggest chronological scam in history” or merely a mild annoyance? Is it actually, maybe sort of a good thing? Or is it the cause of severe mental and psychological disturbances the world over? Well you know what? It’s time to try to answer these questions. Welcome to the Explainer: Daylight Savings Time edition.

savings time

Daylight Savings Time first became a thing about a hundred years ago, in Europe, during World War I. Although the general idea had been present as early as the time of Benjamin Franklin (that great turkey and strumpet loving philanderer might have actually been the first to think it up), and had been brought up by a guy named William Willet in British Parliament in the early 1900s, the notion of forcibly altering time for the sake of human convenience was first put into practice in 1912 Germany. The original impetus was reasonable enough. The Germans were in a war, and by adding an hour of daylight to every evening, the thinking went, Germany could conserve substantial quantities of fuel by decreasing demand for candles and lamps. The plan made some sense and, not wanting to be outdone, many countries soon joined in, including the United States in 1918.

When the Great War ended, and the need to ration fuel was eased, Daylight Savings Time faded into relative obscurity. The world wasn’t done warring, though, and a few decades later the need to conserve fuel arose once again. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, thus drawing the United States into World War II, FDR—wielding the mighty authority vested in him as Federal Timekeeper-in-Chief—instituted year-round Daylight Savings Time, soon to become known as “War Time”. War Time persisted until 1945, when (you guessed it) the war ended. At that point, as was the case after World War I, Daylight Savings Time uniformity was relaxed—and, thankfully, the term “War Time” was no more.

The concept of time in the years following World War II was a mess. As it turned out, simply deciding to arbitrarily wind a clock an hour ahead or behind, absent the uniformity and cohesion offered by a presidential order, can cause confusion. The 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s marked a particularly fraught time during which Daylight Savings Time was widely accepted, but not uniformly applied. Thus, many states and smaller localities were free to pick and choose when (and whether) to leap forward (or backward) in time. This finally changed with the Uniform Time Act of 1966 (uniform time! finally!), which established that American Daylight Savings Time would begin on the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October.

I’m sure you’ve leapt out of your chair by now, however, thinking we have some weeks to go before reaching the last Sunday of April, and yet we still lost an hour of sleep last weekend. What gives, you ask? As it turns out, the culprits are two things Americans love to blame: Congress and the Middle East. When the Energy Crisis of the 1970s hit, Congress realized that it wasn’t done bending the rules of time. Following the 1973 oil embargo, Congress stretched Daylight Savings Time to last almost the entire years of 1974 and 1975. Inky-black mornings and sunlit evenings became the norm. Controversy ensued. And, sure enough, after the crisis abated, back went the clocks.

(Congress amended Daylight Savings Time yet again in 2007, with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The act extended Daylight Savings Time by roughly a month to arrive at our current schedule, beginning on the second Sunday in March and ending on the first Sunday in November.)

There remains an exceedingly weird aspect of Daylight Savings Time in the U.S. that has yet to be discussed: the fact that Arizona doesn’t observe it. (Hawaii doesn’t either, but honestly, who cares?) Why? Because it’s so darn hot! I remember being completely flummoxed by this when I was in college at the University of Arizona. Although I didn’t have to reset my clock, which was nice, Daylight Savings Time became perhaps even more annoying than it is in the rest of the county. Because while everywhere else it’s just the sunrise and sunset that shift (which you can get used to relatively quickly), in Arizona, any dealings with anyone or anything outside the state have to be adjusted for. In particular, this wreaked havoc with TV watching. Shows and sporting events would suddenly start an hour earlier (or an hour later). I could no longer call my parents at the same times. It was maddening.

In any event, you’d think that by now civilization could have gotten together and decided when to start our collective clocks. But no! Even today, in this relatively stable period of time acceptance, only 70 countries use Daylight Savings Time, meaning that far more than half the world refuses to accept this stupid, manipulative device. What’s more, there are significant health and safety issues associated with the Daylight Savings Time schedule. (As this Scientific American article points out, readjusting our internal clocks twice a year can cause some serious problems—essentially causing us to be intentionally jet-lagged for days at a time. And these problems aren’t confined to our heads: statistics show that traffic accidents and heart attacks increase the Monday after daylight savings time. So drive safe, people!) Add to these concerns to dubious and outdated notion that Daylight Savings Time saves energy in an era in which only a tiny fraction of energy costs go to lighting, and one might wonder why we’ve stuck with it at all. Maybe Arizona and Hawaii have the right idea.

In the end, the real question is whether anyone cares enough to do anything about this. The answer is ‘probably not.’ After all, without delving into some sort of philosophical riff, time is whatever we say it is, and as long as the government keeps changing it, we’ll have to follow along. An hour here, an hour there—who really cares? I’ll tell you what, though. My mornings are a lot darker than they used to be. And that’s a bummer.

*A few years ago, my family and I visited Greenwich, during a trip to England and Scotland. Greenwich is the cite of the Universal Date Line, the place where time supposedly begins. While strolling around the beautiful grounds of the Greenwich Observatory, it struck me as hilarious that a group of British people had once decided to pick that spot and declare, “Well I say, this looks like the place from which all other time will be measured.” It was just so arbitrary. Why there? Why anywhere?

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2 Responses to The Explainer: Daylight Savings Time

  1. Arline Minot says:

    Excellent explanation! I heard once that babies have the most difficult time getting use to time changes, not wanting to go to bed on a sunlit evening for instance!

  2. Carolyn says:

    I didn’t know that! I was so floored by the increased heart attack and car accident stats that I completely missed the babies. Yet another reason why DST may just be more trouble than it’s worth.

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