The Origin of Daylight Saving Time and Why Do We Still Have It?

Every year, on the second Sunday of March, clocks in the U.S. 'spring forward' an hour for daylight saving time. The practice is over 100 years old and is observed in over 70 countries but what are the origins of DST and why do we still do it?

Origins of daylight saving time

There are several theories and misconceptions surrounding the origins of daylight saving time (commonly mistakenly referred to as daylight savings time). Benjamin Franklin is often credited with inventing the concept in his 1784 satirical essay titled "An Economical Project," when he suggested that Parisians alter their sleeping habits to save money on lamp oil and candles.

However, Franklin's suggestion relied on people waking up earlier rather than actually changing time.

Pocket watch on a portrait of Benjamin
A pocket watch on a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Many people credit Franklin with inventing daylight saving time. Getty Images

Another well-known theory suggests that the agriculture industry came up with the idea to give farmers more daylight hours to spend working in the fields. Ironically, farmers have been vocal about wanting to scrap DST as it interferes with their routines, with most preferring to use seasons and the sun rather than a clock to establish their daily schedules.

Interestingly though, the origins of DST are firmly rooted in nature.

In 1895 British-born New Zealand entomologist George Hudson proposed changing clocks by two hours so that he could have more hours in the afternoon to collect insects. He presented his idea in a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society and while his suggestion was initially met with scepticism from his peers, it would eventually become modern-day DST.

Honorable mention should also go to British builder William Willett, who in 1907 proposed that clocks should be moved forward by 20 minutes every Sunday in April to increase recreation time and save lighting costs. The process would be reversed in September. His idea failed to make it into law despite several years of campaigning.

Port Arthur and Fort William (now Thunder Bay) in Ontario, Canada, were the first regions in the world to implement DST in 1908. This was followed in 1916 by Germany and Austria-Hungary during WWI as a way to conserve fuel. Many European countries followed suit.

DST was introduced in the U.S. with the Standard Time Act of 1918 as a measure to save resources needed for the war and to extend the working day. It was repealed and reinstated several times, leading to some becoming accustomed to the practice. In the following years, local jurisdictions were given the option to decide whether and when they would observe DST.

The Uniform Time Act of 1966 established a set DST date across the U.S. in order to simplify the process and gave states the option to exempt themselves. Only two states, Hawaii and Arizona, are currently exempt from observing DST.

Why do we still do it?

DST is generally accepted as a way to save energy and daylight during the spring and summer months, as the 'extra' hour means people have more daylight hours to do outdoor activities and use less energy in their homes. However the practicality, usefulness and safety of DST has been debated for years.

Along with energy saving, the U.S. Department of Transportation states DST is observed because it reduces the crime rate as "more people are out conducting their affairs during the daylight rather than at night, when more crime occurs," and because it "saves lives and prevents traffic injuries," as people are traveling and completing errands during daylight hours.

However, an American Academy of Sleep Medicine survey conducted in 2020 found that 63 percent of Americans would support eliminating the time shift in favor of a fixed, year-round time.

Many health experts believe the time shift has a detrimental, albeit temporary, impact on people's circadian rhythms- the internal 24-hour clock that regulates the sleep–wake cycle- causing drowsiness, moodiness and disordered sleep.

A 2020 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study also found that daylight saving time changes heightened the risk of experiencing several health issues including immune disorders, heart diseases and personal accidents.

The cost saving advantages of DST have also been called into question. A 2008 U.S. Department of Energy report found that extension of daylight time saw a 0.5 percent decrease in energy use per day. A DOT report found that DST reduced electricity use by 1 percent but did not impact home heating.

Conversely, a study of Indiana (which had been largely exempt from DST until 2006) found newly implemented DST led to a 1 percent rise in residential electricity use, and predicted "a cost to Indiana households of $9 million per year in increased electricity bills."

In recent years, states across the U.S. have introduced legislation to try to ditch DST and adhere to Standard time. Some states have also voted to abide by DST permanently, even though full-time DST is currently not allowed under federal law.