Daylight Saving Time History

Overnight, we celebrate the biannual ritual of resetting all our clocks so as to save daylight. Oddly, the amount of daylight continues to heed its own rhythms.

Overnight, we celebrate the biannual ritual of resetting all our clocks so as to save daylight. Oddly, the amount of daylight continues to heed its own rhythms.

Howard Mansfield explains the origins of this odd custom (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?“):

This tinkering with clocks is our inheritance from a people obsessed with time. Clocks spread rapidly in early America.


But all these clocks were like many Americans themselves: individual, conforming to their own notions. There were hundreds of local times, each city setting its city hall or courthouse clock to match its own solar noon. When it was 12 p.m. in Chicago, it was 11:50 a.m. in St. Louis and 12:18 p.m. in Detroit. But that wasn’t a problem because local time was all that mattered.

That changed when the railroads began to unify the country. The railroads ran by their own time, which vexed travelers trying to make connections. Many stations had two clocks, one for railroad time and one for local time.

To eliminate the confusion, railroads took it upon themselves in 1883 to divide the country into four time zones, with one standard time within each zone. To resist could mean economic isolation, so at noon on Nov. 18, 1883, Chicagoans had to move their clocks back 9 minutes and 32 seconds. It’s as if the railroads had commanded the sun to stand still, The Chicago Tribune wrote. Louisville was set back almost 18 minutes, and The Louisville Courier-Journal called the change a “compulsory lie.” In a letter to the editor, a reader demanded to know “if anyone has the authority and right to change the city time without the consent of the people?” In an 1884 referendum, three-quarters of voters in Bangor, Me., opposed the 25-minute change to “Philadelphia time.”

One sees the same annoyance with the “compulsory lie” of daylight saving time. When it was being debated in 1916, The Literary Digest saw it as a trick to make “people get up earlier by telling them it is later than it really is.” The Saturday Evening Post asked, in jest, “why not ‘save summer’ by having June begin at the end of February?” And an Arkansas congressman lampooned the time reformers by proposing that we change our thermometers: move the freezing point up 13 degrees and a lot of folks could be tricked into burning less fuel to heat their houses.

We adopted daylight saving time (during World War I), rejected it (after the war), adopted it again (during World War II), and then left it up to the states and localities until 1966, when Congress once more decided it was a national concern. And as much as we complain and point out that it doesn’t make anyone more productive or save any energy, it persists. Almost every state has eight months of it each year and only four months of so-called standard time. As a result, today we rose with the dawn and next week we’ll be eating breakfast in darkness.

Frankly, while awakening when it’s still pitch dark outside is annoying, I’d prefer to just adopt Daylight Savings Time as Standard Time and dispense with the fiddling. Most of us would rather have that extra hour of daylight in the evening rather than the morning.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    The UK, too, has it’s issues with the clock. Wikipedia has an interesting discussion about Single/Double British Summer Time, with a new bill now kicking around Parliament to play with the clocks in yet another round.

  2. Mr Evilwrench says:

    Just set it at something, and leave it alone. We had it that way in Indiana, until the busybodies finally got their 50.1%. It was lovely. Sure, we had to keep track of the idiots all over that kept fiddling with their time, and they us, but since, it’s been nothing but a nuisance. The best reason they could come up with was “everybody else is doing it”. Well, if everybody else jumped off a bridge… Anyway, I guess I was always hoping against hope that others would come to their senses, but no. I (don’t) look forward to being plunged back into darkness, picking the kids up with the bus next week. We were finally coming into the light. I guess it’s better to have the kids out on the streets in the dark getting run over, than be out of sync with someone’s arbitrary time standard. Well, not many of them actually get run over, but, you know, it’s dark out.

  3. Boyd says:

    To build on Mr Evilwrench’s comment…

    Most of us would rather have that extra hour of daylight in the evening rather than the morning.

    But what about…the children!!

    You heartless bastard.

  4. Trumwill says:

    But what about…the children!! You heartless bastard.

    You joke, but studies have demonstrated that making kids get up earlier in the morning has a detrimental effect on their learning. Some of that is human scheduling, but some of it is that there is a not-insignificant portion of the population that has inordinate difficulty getting up in darkness and young people in particular are more likely to be nocturnal.