smart spending

The financial history of daylight saving

Man turning dial on wristwatch © ChameleonsEye/

Conceived by Benjamin Franklin and panned by Native American proverbs, daylight saving time, or DST, has been a constant topic of debate.

And as this year's "spring-forward" approaches (2 a.m. on March 8), what better time than now to learn about its origins?

Nearly 100 years ago, it was created for practicality, but it has caused astonishing confusion along the way. Implemented to save energy costs and be a boon to the economy, many argue DST has been more of a detriment financially.

"From the very beginning, the basic goal of daylight saving was to move the hours of daylight to better match with the hours of human activity," says David Prerau, author of "Seize the Daylight" and widely recognized as the leading authority on the concept of DST.

While in Paris in 1784, Benjamin Franklin sarcastically noted in a letter that nature isn't accommodating to our modern schedules. Franklin understood the financial benefits of early daylight in the summer, provided we all still got to sleep in.

"If I had not been awakened so early in the morning," he wrote, "I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candlelight; the latter being a much more expensive light than the former." Franklin went on to calculate a seasonal savings for Paris of roughly 128 million candlelight hours if people simply woke up earlier.

War in daylight

His suggestions were collectively laughed off by society until Brit William Willett lobbied the British government hard for daylight saving on behalf of the public's "health and happiness" -- and an annual energy savings of about 2.5 million British pounds. Even with the savings, it would take a world war for the British (and the U.S., among others) to begin "falsifying" clocks in 1916.

"People found there was a savings in energy, and that became the reason governments got interested in daylight saving," Prerau says. "They wanted to save energy for the war effort."

However, the cost savings didn't seem to add up, so the U.S. Congress repealed the act in 1919, before the war ended.

In 1919, Sidney M. Colgate -- of Colgate toothpaste -- testified to Congress against the repeal, arguing there was "no question" his plants saved significant energy costs starting the work day an hour later. But he couldn't provide very convincing evidence. The U.S. returned to "God's time," as it was called, to appease powerful farmer blocs who weren't about to lose production or get up at dark o'clock.

Time saving of a nation

It seems New York City was the only godless place in the country at the time. Shortly after the repeal, the city enacted a local ordinance to preserve daylight saving time. Large department stores believed they could sell more goods to people on their sunlit walks home from work. Wall Street also didn't like losing an hour of trading to those daylight savers in London. Major cities across the country began following New York's lead.

What time is it?

The problem was that each city decided its own unique start and end dates, creating no uniformity and ample inefficiencies.

"In the 1950s and '60s, it became very confusing," says Prerau.

Relative pandemonium might be more accurate. He cited one infamous 35-mile bus ride that, at the time, would roll through seven separate time zones. There was also an airline that received 4,000 calls per day with customers wanting to know the time differences in their destinations.

A Native American chief is known to have summarized his opinion of daylight saving that must have seemed awfully apt during the ensuing timekeeping chaos. "Only the government would believe you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket," he said.

It wouldn't be until 1966 that Congress created one six-month daylight-saving period for states to follow or not observe at all, effectively throwing a resewn time blanket over the country. Now, Hawaii and (most of) Arizona are the only states that don't observe the change.


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