The History of “Spring Forward, Fall Back”

Victory-Cigar-Congress-Passes-DSTEver the thinker, Benjamin Franklin first mused about of the idea of daylight saving time (DST).  While in Paris, he published an essay, “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light”.  In the essay he essentially proposed that instead of using candles or oil lamps for light in the mornings that natural sunlight be used instead.   Franklin, on the night previous, had seen a demonstration of an oil lamp and he began to think in terms of economy and thrift.  Was the price of the oil to fuel the lamp worth the cost?

When he posed the question to his hosts at the demonstration of the oil lamp, he apparently gave them something to ponder:

I was pleased to see this general concern for economy, for I love economy exceedingly.

After the meeting, he retired to his apartment and bedded down at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning.  A noise awakened him about 6:00 in the morning and he was surprised to see the room filled with light.  At first he thought that perhaps several of the lamps he had seen demonstrated the night before had been brought in.  However, upon rubbing his eyes he realized the light was coming through the windows.  In somewhat disbelief, he arose to look out the window and realized that the domestic help had forgotten to close the shutters.

He looked at his watch, knowing that it worked very well, and found that it was still an early hour, only 6:00 a.m.  He checked the almanac because he thought it “extraordinary” that the sun rose that early.  In fact, he discovered that the sun rose earlier each day until close to the end of June.

Franklin continued his “experiment” for the next three mornings with the same result.   Once he begins to share his observation with others, he was met with puzzlement and skepticism:

Yet it so happens, that when I speak of this discovery to others, I can easily perceive by their countenances, though they forbear expressing it in words, that they do not quite believe me. One, indeed, who is a learned natural philosopher, has assured me that I must certainly be mistaken as to the circumstance of the light coming into my room; for it being well known, as he says, that there could be no light abroad at that hour, it follows that none could enter from without; and that of consequence, my windows being accidentally left open, instead of letting in the light, had only served to let out the darkness; and he used many ingenious arguments to show me how I might, by that means, have been deceived. I owned that he puzzled me a little, but he did not satisfy me; and the subsequent observations I made, as above mentioned, confirmed me in my first opinion.

The essay is amusing and informative as Franklin continues to muse and reflect, even coming up with his own calculations and theories.  Click here to read it.

Although Franklin is not credited with the “invention” of DST, his essay did cause a stir at the time.  In 1895, George Vernon Hudson, a New Zealand entomologist put forth an idea of shifting time two hours back in October and two hours forward in March.  In 1905 the idea was furthered by William Willet.  His idea was to gradually move clocks forward 20 minutes each Sunday in April and then in Sunday to move clocks back 20 minutes each Sunday.  His idea was opposed by farmers and never became law.

As the old adage goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”.  During World War I, Germany saw a need to preserve artificial light and use natural lighting instead.  Eventually the practice was adopted by the United States, Britain and many other nations.  After the end of WWI, many of those nations returned to standard time, which turned out to be a short-lived policy, as it became necessary again during World War II.

The need for DST was perceived as perhaps even greater than in the first world war.  President Franklin Roosevelt instituted year-round DST, calling it “War Time”, which lasted from February 9, 1942 until September 30, 1945.  After Japan finally surrendered, time zones were referred to as “Peace Time”.

Between 1945 and 1966 much confusion ensued, wreaking havoc with bus and train schedules, because states were free to choose whether to observe DST or not.  Congress passed the “Uniform Time Act of 1966” which said that DST would begin on the last Sunday in April and revert back to standard time on the last Sunday of October.  States, however, were allowed exemptions through the passage of local ordinances.

In the ensuing years, the process of DST was tweaked, most notably during the energy crisis of the 1970s.  Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, designating the second Sunday in March as the beginning of DST and the first Sunday in November as the end of DST (with the exception of Hawaii and some parts of Arizona).

Enjoy that “extra” hour of sleep tonight!

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.

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