9 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Daylight Saving Time

Surprise: farmers have always been daylight saving time’s biggest opponent.

Daylight saving time makes people feel A Way.

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Perhaps as you stumble bleary-eyed through this week, you’ll grouse to roommate, “Daylight saving time is awful! It was started because of FARMERS! AND BENJAMIN FRANKLIN! It’s no longer relevant!”

“People are MORE LIKELY TO DIE OF HEART ATTACKS THE MONDAY AFTER DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME STARTS!” you’ll scream over the wall of your cubicle to anyone who will listen. “It’s just a scam invented by the candy industry to get kids to trick-or-treat for longer!” you’ll tell your Uber driver.

Well…you’d be onto something with the heart attack thing, mostly wrong about B. Franklin and Big Candy, and 100% wrong about the farmers thing.

Surprised? Yeah, I was too. So, let’s start at the beginning of the truly preposterous story of daylight saving time (yes lowercase, yes “saving”), with Seize the Daylight by David Prerau as our guide.

1. Benjamin Franklin did not invent daylight saving time…though he definitely had some DST-adjacent ideas.

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In 1784, Franklin was living in Paris when his attendant left his bedroom shutters open one night; when a noise woke up him at 6 a.m., Franklin was astonished to see light streaming into his room at such an early hour. Astonished!!!! (Literally, his words.) This led him to wonder why people were burning so many candles at night when they could just get up six hours earlier instead. He estimated that if Parisians got out of bed earlier each day and used sunshine instead of candles, they could save $200 million a year in today’s dollars. (This was…a wild exaggeration.) Franklin then put together an “Economic Project” that would encourage people to get up with the sun; it involved a tax on every window that had shutters, a limit on how many candles a family could buy each week, guards that would stop all coaches out after sunset, and ringing church bells and firing cannons (!!!) as soon as the sun rose each day — “to wake the sluggards effectively and make them open their eyes to their true interest.”

His plan did not take off.

2. In 1905, a British architect named William Willett invented daylight saving time.

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Willett was out for his regular early-morning horse ride when it he noticed that 1) it was rather light outside, and 2) he was the only one up. Like Franklin, he thought this was a waste of perfectly good sunlight. And it ~dawned~ on him that instead of getting everyone up earlier by blasting cannons, they could simply shift their clocks forward to take better advantage of that sweet daylight. So, in 1907 Willett published a pamphlet outlining his formal proposal. He suggested that people turn their clocks forward 20 minutes every Sunday in April at 2 a.m. (And then they would set the clocks back by 20 minutes every Sunday in September.) He argued that this would get people outside and exercising, and that it would save on electricity, gas, candles, etc. (He also estimated it would save $200 million in today’s dollars. This was…again, a wild exaggeration.) A member of parliament, Richard Pearce, heard about Willett’s idea and was into it; he introduced Pearce’s Daylight Saving Bill to the House of Commons in February of 1908. The idea of changing the clocks four times in a month didn’t go over well, and the bill was eventually revised so that the clocks would be set forward one hour at 2 a.m. on the third Sunday in April (and then set back in September).

The bill was endorsed by merchants, banks, railroad companies, and the guy who created Sherlock Holmes, but was opposed by most astronomers and and scientists. And one newspaper wrote “that if a man were going to a 7:00 dinner, under the new arrangement of daylight he would appear on the streets of London in evening dress at 5:40, which would shake the British Empire to its foundations.”

You know who else opposed the bill? FARMERS. They argued from the start that they couldn’t perform their operations at a different time — for example, they couldn’t harvest grass for hay while it was still wet with dew, and the dew wasn’t going to disappear earlier just because the clock had changed. And there were other activities that they couldn’t do until temperatures dropped after the sun went down. Basically, they hated DST from its inception.

Thanks to its opponents and its lack of support from the prime minister, the bill didn’t progress through the House of Commons. Undeterred, Willett tried again…and was defeated again…and then again. He died in 1915 without ever seeing his passion project come to fruition.

3. Daylight saving time really caught on during World War I as a way to conserve energy.

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After the war broke out, the countries involved began to think about ways to save energy. Cutting back on the use of artificial lighting was one option, leading to a renewed interest in DST. As British Parliament debated it yet again, Germany was like, Yeah, well, we’re doing this. The German Federal Council issued a decree that summer daylight saving time would be kicking off at 11 p.m. on Sunday April 30, 1916, and would end at 1 a.m. on Sunday, October 1. Austria-Hungary, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden followed. The U.K. finally got on board in May 1916, and several other countries in Europe followed.

4. Despite the association with farmers, daylight saving time actually came to the United States thanks to business owners (and war).

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If you feel like garbage this week, you can direct your curses toward Marcus A. Marks, a clothing manufacturer; A. Lincoln Filene, a department store owner; and Robert Garland, a Pittsburgh industrialist. These three were very pro-DST, and were able to get labor organizations on board, along with the US Chamber of Commerce, the president of the National League of Baseball Clubs, and other prominent business owners. Even President Woodrow Wilson wrote a letter expressing his support for their efforts.

Less than two weeks after the US entered WWI, a daylight saving bill was introduced in Congress. It was heavily opposed by farmers, and also railroad companies, who were concerned about anything that could mess with the standard time zones (which had only recently become A Thing — a story for another day), and who said that 1,698,818 (!!) clocks and watches along their routes would have to be changed if DST were implemented. Because the fewest trains were running at 2 a.m., that became the proposed hour for the change-over. And because the most coal was consumed in March and October in the States, the bill was expanded to include those two months. On March 19, 1918, daylight saving time was signed into law in the United States, and took effect on March 31 of that year.

5. After the war ended, farmers began to lobby aggressively to repeal daylight saving time.

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The farmers argued that they had to leave their farms at odd (for them) hours to do business in town (like meet trains or to go to the bank) that messed with their farm schedule; there was still the issue of the dew on the grass in the early morning; their cows didn’t like it; and they basically found the whole thing massively inconvenient and pointless.

In 1919, more than 20 bills were introduced in Congress to repeal the law. Tensions ran high, and supporters of daylight saving had several conspiracy theories about who was secretly behind the efforts to repeal — one popular belief was that the electric companies were pushing to keep DST, as they purportedly lost revenue during the months it was in place. Others simply argued that daylight saving was unnatural, because clocks should proclaim “God’s time.” (This argument about “God’s time” would pop up again and again in the coming decades.)

In July of 1919, President Wilson vetoed the first repeal bill that made it to his desk, which led the anti-DST groups try to rally support for getting two-thirds of Congress to override his veto. They came very close but ultimately failed…so they decided to immediately try again with a new bill. Wilson vetoed again, but this time the anti-DST lobby was able to persuade two-thirds of Congress that daylight saving time is, in fact, very awful, and the law was repealed. Oh, and this all happened in a 37-day period.

People have always had very strong feelings about daylight saving time, is what I’m saying.

6. All hell broke loose.

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Without the federal law mandating daylight saving time, it was up to individual states to decide whether or not to implement DST, and, if so, the dates it would be in effect. And many of the states let individual counties decide how to handle it…which meant the United States basically descended into chaos with regard to what time it was on any given day. Connecticut made it illegal to display any time other than standard time publicly. The movie industry successfully kept DST from becoming law in California, arguing that it would cause their profits to decrease. (Even now, DST causes TV ratings to drop.) In 1926, daylight saving time made its way to the US Supreme Court, which upheld a lower court’s ruling that a Massachusetts law instituting daylight saving was, in fact, constitutional. Meanwhile, people who lived/worked in areas with some of the bigger disputes began wearing two watches to help them determine what time it was. It was a mess.

7. Another war came along and solved the problem…but then all hell broke loose again.

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In January 1942, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress passed a federal daylight saving law — but this time, they included a line that said the law would automatically end six months after the war did. Well, after the war ended, and DST was no longer federal law, the country descended into chaos yet again. For years. There were heated city council and school board meetings. There were furious farmers. There was at least one train crash (though, fortunately, no fatalities). There were 23 different combinations of start and end dates for DST throughout the state of Iowa in a single year. A state official in Tennessee had to be escorted to a meeting about DST by US marshals because the situation was so intense.

In 1965, St. Paul and Minneapolis couldn’t agree on when daylight saving should start; though May 23 was the official start date per Minnesota state law, St. Paul was like, “Nah, we’re going to start it on May 9” and refused to back down, even after the governor was like, “Seriously, guys, please stop.” So *takes deep breath* 18 of St. Paul’s suburbs were on daylight saving time; 19 were on standard time; four were on standard time BUT had town offices shift their hours so they opened/closed an hour later; one stayed on standard time but all of their businesses used daylight saving time; one observed DST ~unofficially~, and two let each individual citizen decide. And I’m not even going to try to explain how it looked across school districts and the fire and police departments. It was PREPOSTEROUS.

Elsewhere in the country, the transportation industry was at a loss for how to handle the discrepancies. Railroads operated on standard time (per federal law), but started publishing two separate timetables because they had passengers who lived in places that observed daylight saving time. Bus, train, and airline companies were forced to regularly re-print their schedules to keep up with the time changes in the cities they were passing through, something that cost the railroad industry alone $12 millions in today’s money.

In 1965, Congress realized they should probably do something about this foolishness, and it seemed like passing a federal daylight saving time law was the best option. So…there were more heated debates. Farmers got pissed. Senators and their religious fundamentalist constituents once again started talking about “God’s time.” This time around, many opponents of DST went the “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!” route, invoking images of innocent children waiting outside for the bus alone on cold, dark mornings. Representative H.R. Gross of Iowa was one of the people who used this technique, shouting, “I am not going to vote today to make myself part of a tragedy on the highways of Iowa where school children … are mowed down by a truck or car … Let the blood be on your hands, not mine!” (I can’t not read that in Alex Jones’s voice.)

TL;DR: After WWII, nobody could agree on national DST and things got Very Bad.

8. In 1966, Congress finally got its life together.

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That’s when President Johnson signed a law that made a national daylight saving period — from the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October — official. (There was a provision that allowed any state to exempt itself by a passing its own state law about DST, which is why some states still don’t observe it.)

That worked until 1973, when the energy shortage led President Nixon and Congress to enact national, year-round DST. Unsurprisingly, there were more heated debates about potential dead schoolchildren and whether or not bureaucrats should be allowed to mess with the immutable time laws of God. In 1974, a Department of Transportation study concluded that year-round DST was wildly unpopular and didn’t reduce energy consumption all that much, so in 1975, the US reverted back to the new normal — daylight saving time from May to October.

9. Since then, there have been successful attempts to extend the duration of daylight saving time, most of which were influenced, once again, by businesses. (But still not farmers! Never farmers!)

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In 1984, a group of businesses formed a lobbying group called the “Daylight Saving Time Coalition.” The grill and charcoal industries, the amusement park industry, the candy industry, fast food companies, and makers of sporting goods all believed a longer DST period would be good for business. A dude from the parent company of 7-Eleven argued that a longer period of daylight saving time would help women, who were (allegedly) uncomfortable approaching their stores after dark. And retailers realized that when it was light out in the evening, people were more likely to shop after work. So in 1986, an extension was passed by Congress, and DST began three weeks earlier, on the first Sunday of April.

In 2005, thanks to rising oil prices and pressure from the airline industry, a new date range for daylight saving time was agreed upon: the second Sunday in March through the first Sunday in November. It was signed into law by George W. Bush and took effect in 2007. (This made the candy industry happy, because it meant Halloween finally fell within the DST date range — meaning kids would have more daylight hours to trick-or-treat, something they had long wanted.) And with that, our long national nightmare mostly came to a close! Except not because DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME IS STILL HERE, STILL HORRIBLE, PROBABLY DOESN’T ACTUALLY SAVE ENERGY, WILL TRICK US INTO SPENDING MORE MONEY, AND WE WILL ALL FEEL LIKE SHIT THIS WEEK AND I HATE IT.

But! We really should stop blaming farmers.

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