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Origin and Function of Daylight Saving Time: The Concept of “Springing Forward” and “Falling Back”

Daylight Saving Time vs. Standard Time
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HAMLET – Sunday morning at 2:00 a.m. we were to “fall back” to 1:00 a.m. in order to join most of our society in the recognition of – and abeyance unto – the magical realm of returning to “standard time” from daylight saving time. 

So why do we follow this ritualistic observance of daylight saving time in the first place, and why are the adjustments scheduled as they are? 

Yes, daylight saving time (DST) will be returned to us (or perhaps it remains more apropos to say that it is US who will be returned to IT).  In 2019, as of 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 10th , all areas of the United States – except for external territories, Hawaii, and most of Arizona – will once again “spring ahead” and thus effectively “lose” an hour of time as measured by our clocks.

While research reveals that most of us seem to like it, and few openly complain about it, we probably fail to actually contemplate the “how and why” of moving our clocks forward to allow for an “additional” sixty minutes of daylight, only to move them back again on the first Sunday of November. 

The concept and logic of daylight saving time (DST) is simple.  By manually setting clocks forward, we are artificially “adding” an extra period of time before the sun sets.  

From that point, the implementation of DST has an interesting history.  Ancient civilizations are thought to have adjusted daily schedules to be in better congruence with the patterns of the sun.  There are records that indicate observances of twelve hour days, regardless of the actual length of time in which the sun was still up.  This practice resulted in the formulation of “hours” that actually varied in exact measure in accordance with the seasons.  The Romans kept time with water clocks that had different scales for the respective months and seasons. 

Contrary to popular belief, however, there was no serious attempt to establish any semblance of daylight saving(s) time in America until the 1900’s.  Yes, Benjamin Franklin did espouse the “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” admonition (although he “borrowed” the phraseology from an old English proverb), but he never actually proposed any type of official “time adjustment” at all.  While Franklin did publish (albeit anonymously) a pamphlet in France advising Parisians to economize on candles by “rising earlier to better take advantage of morning sunlight,” this 1784 satire also proposed the taxation of closed window shutters during daylight hours, the firing of cannons and ringing of church bells at sunrise to arouse the citizenry at daybreak, and the rationing of candles so as to force a more efficient usage of daylight. 

So why and how did the concept of daylight saving(s) time develop?  The simple answer is the need to coordinate railroad schedules (i.e., the same rationale as that which precipitated official establishment of time zones in the contiguous United States in 1884) and telegraph communications while maximizing the advantages of working in the light of day.  

In 1895, totally independent of one another, New Zealander George Hudson and British builder William Willett attempted to persuade their respective nations to adopt the idea of maximizing the advantageous usage of sunlight hours.  Neither of them was immediately successful, but the discussion of the wisdom of what we now call “daylight saving(s) time” progressed rapidly from that point. 


The first recorded modern-day attempt to promulgate the idea into law is credited to Great Britain’s Robert Pearce, a liberal member of the House of Commons.  He introduced a bill to that effect on February 12th, 1908, but it did not pass into recognized legislation.  William Frost, the mayor of Orillia, Ontario, Canada, was able to enact an edict that effectively established daylight saving(s) time in 1911, but it applied only to his municipality and was in effect only until he left office the following year. 

It was not until April 30, 1916 that an entire nation formally adopted the concept of what we now call daylight saving(s) time (DST).  Germany, deeply involved in World War I at the time, needed a way to drastically reduce coal consumption.  By officially adjusting the daily schedules of its citizens, this economic maneuver was highly successful and subsequently led other nations, including the United States in 1918, to do the same.  (It should be noted that when President Woodrow Wilson signed the initial DST proposal into law, it was actually at the behest of the retail merchants – as opposed to the farmers – who cited increased sales with the allowance of an extra hour of light.) 

However, after WWI, the logic behind the initial observance of DST was no longer applicable, or at least not as urgent an issue as it was during wartime.  With the notable exceptions of Great Britain, Canada, France, and Ireland, nations generally abandoned the idea.  Of course, with the onset of World War II in 1939, a replication of conditions similar to those of 1916 occurred and DST was again re-established in various nations.  After the 1966 standardization of DST, yet another resurgence of support for it was noted during the energy crisis of the early 1970’s.  This situation effectively solidified the continued observance of daylight saving(s) time in the United States, with adjustments occurring in 1987 and again in 2007 (when the current schedule of DST was established). 

There are no less than seven “proper” ways to denote DST.  Although “daylight saving (no‘s’) time” is considered the “most” correct, adding an “s” to the word “saving” is commonly, if not predominantly, observed.  Dictionaries that traditionally show deference to the actual popular usage (as opposed to the original preference), still list the older “no s” version as the preferred one.  Merriam-Webster’s American Heritage is a prime example.  However, as Richard Meade explains in the English Journal of the American National Council of Teachers of English, the added “s” was already in vogue and thus generally recognized as acceptable as early as 1978, a mere 13 years after the initial passage of the initial standardization act. 

Other permutations include:  daylight-saving time; daylight-savings time; daylight saving; daylight savings; and daylight time.  Regardless of which one you prefer, the term is usually considered a generic descriptor and is thus NOT capitalized.  However, its initials ARE generally denoted as upper case letters.  In a related sense, specific time zones are designated as proper titles and thus require capitalization as well.  

Other nations have addressed the denotation issue as well.  In Britain, the original term of “daylight saving” (as proposed in 1907 by William Willett, the primary British proponent of the movement at that time) was eventually changed to simply “summertime” – one word, as opposed to “summer time” – for purposes of the pertinent legislation of 1911. 

Further, the standard term for UK time, when advanced by one hour, is British Summer Time (BST).  British English typically inserts the word “summer” into other time zone names.  Thus, Central European Time (CET) becomes Central European Summer Time (CEST). 

Likewise, our US time zone terminology is altered when DST is applied and the word “daylight” replaces “standard” as the primary descriptive word.  Thus, Eastern Standard Time – a proper title that consequently requires capitalization – (EST) becomes Eastern Daylight (no inclusion of the understood “saving”) Time (EDT).  

So, regardless of how one chooses to believe it originated and/or articulate and enunciate the terminology, or which side with one may identify in regard to the ongoing debate as to the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the concept of DST, as a citizen of the United States (unless you happen to reside in Hawaii, our territories, or particular areas of Arizona), it is probably in your best interest to “fall back” and “spring forward” as requested in accordance with the social mandate that we affectionately refer to as “standard time” or “daylight saving time” (or at least something like that).


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