The weird backstory to Daylight Savings Time

summer time

Set a reminder to set back your clocks this weekend, as we welcome back (for the hundredth time) Daylight Savings Time. This biannual tradition, established in 1918 America, sees much of the world get robbed of an hour sleep as clocks spring forward at 1 AM on Sunday, all to give us an extra hour of sunlight.
There’s a lot of flotsam in our heads about daylight saving time.  You know the old saw that differentiates it from it’s autumnal clock-changing partner – “Spring ahead” versus “Fall back”. And perhaps you’ve been corrected for calling it daylight savings time. Maybe you’ve been taught that the twice-yearly switch was initially adopted to save us money on cut energy consumption, but the practice of advancing clocks during summer months is primarily so that evening daylight lasts longer.

The United States adopted daylight saving time 100 years ago, but it’s not globally embraced.  Nor is it fully complied with nationally, creating nested time zones within the US.

Some experts claim it can potentially influence your health as the transition to and from daylight saving time has been linked to higher heart attack risk and higher car accident fatalities. Most agree that those effects, attributed  to sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm changes, are just temporary.

Here are a few of the lesser-known facts about daylight saving time.

1895 – George Hudson, an entomologist from New Zealand, proposed a two-hour time shift during summer so he’d have more after-work hours of sunshine to go bug hunting.

1912 – British builder William Willett (the great-great grandfather of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin) came up with the same while horseback riding. He proposed it to England’s Parliament as a way to prevent the nation from wasting daylight. Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle supported the concept, but it was rejected.

1916 – Two years into World War I, the German government started exploring ways to save energy. According to David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, “They remembered Willett’s idea of moving the clock forward and thus having more daylight during working hours. While the British were talking about it year after year, the Germans decided to do it more or less by fiat.”  According to the National Geographic, soon almost every other country that fought in World War I followed suit.

1918 – US Congress enacted its first daylight saving law, and implemented the Standard Time Act which defined US time zones.

Recall that a century ago coal was the primary fuel of nations, so the additional hour of sunlight did translate directly into energy savings. Other benefits are largely attributable to geography. The further you travel from the Equator, the more drastic the seasons will be. As Earth is tilted on its axis with respect to the sun, the top and bottom portions of the globe receive more or less sunlight at different times of the year, making the loss of daylight hours more pronounced.

In the middle latitudes, the amount of sun remains fairly constant year ‘round, resulting in milder seasonal and daylight changes. In southern climes, extra sunlight is not desirable due to additional heat gain.

“In the summer, everybody loves to have an extra hour of daylight in the evening so they can stay out another hour,” Prerau explains. In Arizona, it’s just the opposite, he says. “They don’t want more sunlight, they want less.”

In 2012, dozens of protesters gathered in Tel Aviv‘s Rabin Square as daylight saving time was set to end.  They claimed Israel’s policy of ending DST prior to Yom Kippur favors the ultra-Orthodox sector of the population over practical interests of the secular and modern Orthodox majority (daylight hours directly correlate to fasting times).

That same year, the Jordanian Cabinet reversed a decision to switch to wintertime, sticking with daylight saving time for the entire year. Our extended daylight hours are good for the environment butt the late decision caused logistical headaches to businesses and – temporarily – to air travelers faced with conflicting flight arrival and departure times.

Where do you stand on the time switch-up?


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