100 Years and the Madness of Daylight Saving Time Still Endures

March 11, 2019

The original arguments Congress made for ‘springing ahead’ have been thoroughly debunked. So why are they still being used today?

One hundred years after Congress passed the first daylight saving legislation, lawmakers in Florida this week passed the “Sunshine Protection Act,” which will make daylight saving a year-round reality in the Sunshine State.

If approved by the federal government, this will effectively move Florida’s residents one time zone to the east, aligning cities from Jacksonville to Miami with Nova Scotia rather than New York and Washington, D.C.

The cost of rescheduling international and interstate business and commerce hasn’t been calculated. Instead, relying on the same overly optimistic math that led the original proponents of daylight saving to predict vast energy savings, crisper farm products harvested before the morning dew dried and lessened eye strain for industrial workers, Florida legislators are lauding the benefits of putting “more sunshine in our lives.”

It’s absurd – and fitting – that a century later, opponents and supporters of daylight saving are still not sure exactly what it does. Despite its name, daylight saving has never saved anyone anything. But it has proven to be a fantastically effective retail spending plan.

Making the trains run on time

For centuries people set their clocks and watches by looking up at the sun and estimating, which yielded wildly dissimilar results between (and often within) cities and towns.

To railroad companies around the world, that wasn’t acceptable. They needed synchronized, predictable station times for arrivals and departures, so they proposed splitting up the globe into 24 time zones.

In 1883, the economic clout of the railroads allowed them to replace sun time with standard time with no legislative assistance and little public opposition. The clocks were calm for almost 30 years, but for an annual debate in the British Parliament over whether to pass a Daylight Saving Act. While proponents argued that shoving clocks ahead during summer months would reduce energy consumption and encourage outdoor recreation, the opposition won out.

Then, in 1916, Germany suddenly adopted the British idea in hopes of conserving energy for its war effort. Within a year, Great Britain followed suit. And despite fanatical opposition from the farm lobby, so would the United States.

From patriotic duty to moneymaking scheme

A law requiring Americans to lose an hour was confounding enough. But Congress also tacked on the legal mandate for the four continental time zones. The patriotic rationale for daylight saving went like this: Shifting one hour of available light from the very early morning (when most Americans were asleep) would reduce the demand for domestic electrical power used to illuminate homes in the evening, which would spare more energy for the war effort.

On March 19, 1918, Woodrow Wilson signed the Calder Act requiring Americans to set their clocks to standard time; less than two weeks later, on March 31, they would be required to abandon standard time and push their clocks ahead by an hour for the nation’s first experiment with daylight saving.

It didn’t go smoothly. In 1918, Easter Sunday fell on March 31, which led to a lot of latecomers to church services. Enraged rural and evangelical opponents thereafter blamed daylight saving for subverting sun time, or “God’s time.” Newspapers were deluged by letter writers complaining that daylight saving upset astronomical data and made almanacs useless, prevented Americans from enjoying the freshest early morning air, and even browned out lawns unaccustomed to so much daylight.

Within a year, daylight saving was repealed. But like most weeds, the practice thrived by neglect.

In 1920, New York and dozens of other cities adopted their own metropolitan daylight saving policies. The Chamber of Commerce spurred along this movement on behalf of department store owners, who had noticed that later sunset times encouraged people to stop and shop on their way home from work.

By 1965, 18 states observed daylight saving six months a year; some cities and towns in 18 other states observed daylight saving for four, five or six months a year; and 12 states stuck to standard time.

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