Why Do We Change Our Clocks Twice A Year?

This morning I had to turn all of my clocks back an hour. This wasn’t so hard for some of my clocks; my cell phone updated automatically, and my wall clock has a little dial I can use to quickly adjust the time. However, the clocks in my car and on my oven are a bit more complicated, and figuring out how to change them can be quite frustrating, especially since I only change them twice a year.

Which begs the question: why do we change our clocks by an hour twice a year? Why do we “Spring Ahead and Fall Back”? What is the point of this bizarre exercise?

The idea of Daylight Saving Time – adjusting our clocks by an hour in order to have an extra hour of daylight in the summer – was proposed in 1895 by George Vernon Hudson, a famed entomologist and astronomer from New Zealand. The idea came to him while he was working a day job that had him working different shifts on different days. When not working, he would spend his daylight hours collecting insects to study, and he began to grumble that there weren’t enough hours of daylight in the afternoons. He reasoned that since, in the summertime, sunrise tends to happen before most people wake up, adjusting the clocks an hour later would make the sunrise appear to happen closer to when everyone is getting up in the morning and give people more daylight to enjoy in the evening.

People slowly started to warm to the idea. In part, this was because Hudson was not the only person who advocated such a scheme. In fact, none other than Benjamin Franklin had proposed something rather like Daylight Saving Time more than a century earlier. The first real push to turn this little idea into actual government policy, though, was in the United Kingdom, where William Willett published a pamphlet in 1907 entitled “Waste of Daylight” to drum up support for the proposal.

The first town to actually try this “Daylight Saving Time” idea for itself was Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, in 1908. In 1914, Regina, Saskatchewan decided to adopt it as well, and in 1916, so did Winnipeg, Manitoba.

That same year, Germany and Austria-Hungary became the first nations to adopt Daylight Saving Time nationwide; ironically, they did so to aid in their war effort against the very British Empire that they stole the idea from. The logic was that by adjusting their clocks and gaining that evening hour of daylight, they would use less artificial lighting and thus save fuel. Soon thereafter, the British and French adopted DST as well for the same reason. The United States adopted it in 1918.

Then, the First World War ended, and almost all of the countries that had adopted DST quickly abolished it. Why? Well, in part because it was meant as a temporary wartime measure, not as something permanent, but in part it also had to do with opposition to the scheme from many sectors of society. Here in the United States, for example, DST was supported by retailers (because workers who had extra daylight after work were more likely to go shopping) but opposed by farmers (because they had less time in the pre-dawn hours to get their goods to market) and by the young motion picture industry (because it was thought people wouldn’t want to spend their daytime in a dark theater). When World War II broke out, the warring nations once again adopted DST, once again as a temporary measure to save fuel, and once again dropped it once the war was over.

So, if Daylight Saving Time was abolished after WWII, why do we use it today? Thank Wall Street. See, New York City really liked DST and kept it around even as the rest of the United States ditched it. This meant that the stock market in the United States observed the twice-yearly clock change, and so did banks and the rest of the American finance industry. Other cities followed the Big Apple’s lead, and soon the United States was a crazy patchwork of places that did and that didn’t observe DST, and to make matters worse, there was no consistency for when DST started and ended for those places that did observe it. It became rather frustrating for months out of the year, as it became very difficult for travelers to know exactly what time it would be when they reached their destination.

To end the confusion, in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act. Under this scheme, Daylight Saving Time would be regulated by the federal government and adopted nationwide, though individual states could opt-out of having to observe it. The feds would set the starting and ending dates of DST for those states that participated. Today, all states observe DST except Arizona and Hawaii.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Most of Arizona doesn’t observe DST, but the Navajo Nation, an Indian reservation that lies in three states, does observe DST in order to have consistent time throughout the tribal lands. However, the Hopi Indian Reservation is located inside the Navajo Nation and does lie entirely within Arizona, and therefore doesn’t observe DST. If that wasn’t confusing enough, a tiny piece of the Navajo Nation actually lies within the Hopi Indian Reservation! This is the last remnant of the Daylight Saving Time confusion once common in the United States – if you were to travel in a straight line through this one spot, you could end up changing your clock seven times! So, nothing is ever that simple.

So, why do we still observe DST all these years later, willingly giving ourselves a twice-yearly challenge to try to figure out how to change our clocks and trying to remember which direction to turn the clock? The same reason that we adopted it during the world wars: saving energy.

About 3.5% of all electricity consumption in North America is made up of electrical lighting use by residential homes. Since the 1970s, many studies have shown energy savings from the use of DST by many Americans. However, these findings aren’t consistent everywhere – in my home state of California, a 2007 study showed no significant energy savings, which makes sense considering that what may be gained from less light usage would be offset in many of the hotter parts of the state by heavy air conditioning usage.

Whether Daylight Saving Time is actually useful or not, though, it is clearly here to stay. So, may I make a simple request of all makers of ovens, cars, and other devices with clocks on them? Please make it easier for us to change the time forward and back for an hour! Is that too much to ask?

One Response to Why Do We Change Our Clocks Twice A Year?

  1. auntleesie says:

    Not crazy about it, myself. This year, it fell during a trip to another time zone in the U.S., so I’m guaranteed to be “off” time for at least a week.

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