Fall back, spring forward… “a chaos of clocks”


Image from Flickr (Creative Commons license)

At 2am on Sunday, November 2, all our clocks will roll back an hour. In our highly digital world, most clocks will receive the signal from the mothership to change on their own, but microwave and oven clocks will need to be re-set manually. (Also car clocks, if you have an older car. But isn’t that “I’m an hour late to work!” moment of panic a nice jump-start to the week?)

Have you ever been curious about (or irritated by) our twice-yearly time change? I have been, on both counts, so this year I used the library’s Credo Reference database to find out more.

Like many American ideas, this one can be traced back to Ben Franklin, who (satirically) recommended earlier opening and closing of shops to save on the cost of lighting. (Read  his letter to the editor of The Journal of Paris, 1784.) Daylight-saving time, however, wasn’t adopted in the States until World War I, when the U.S., England, France, Germany, and other countries adopted it. President Wilson signed the Standard Time Act into law in 1918, but it was unpopular, and was repealed in 1919.

President Roosevelt brought back Daylight Saving Time (DST) in February 1942; “War Time” lasted until September 1945. Between 1945 and 1965, however, DST was “a confounding patchwork of local practices…a chaos of clocks” causing “widespread confusion…for trains, buses and the broadcasting industry because states and localities were free to choose when and if they would observe DST.”


Image from Flickr (Creative Commons license)

In 1966, the Uniform Time Act (“An Act to promote the observance of a uniform system of time throughout the United States”) passed, going into effect in 1967. This act mandated the start and end times for DST: the last Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October. States were allowed to opt out, but only a few did. (Today, Hawaii and Arizona – except for the Navajo Nation – and U.S. territories are the holdouts.)

There have been three changes to DST since the Uniform Time Act, including the adoption of year-round DST during the energy crisis of 1973-74. DST was expanded slightly in 1987, and expanded again in 2007, so now it stretches from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.

But the real question, of course, is WHY? The History Channel debunks two popular myths: that DST was originally intended to benefit farmers, and that it saves energy. Energy savings on lighting, it seems, are now offset by costs of heating and cooling, though this may differ depending on geography. California, for example, sees worthwhile energy savings from DST, whereas Indiana does not.

Image from Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Image from Flickr (Creative Commons license)

As for agriculture, The Yale Law Journal, of all places, weighed in on DST in April 1922: “‘Daylight saving’ has an unfortunately varying effect upon the welfare of different classes and occupations. A blessing to the confined office worker, it is anathema to his brother on the farm.” Farmers have indeed opposed expansions to DST in 1987 and again more recently in 2005.

 Some scientists have pointed to the harmful effects of the time change, determining that our bodies’ circadian clocks never adjust to the shift in daylight from morning to evening. This can cause tiredness (“social jet lag”) in many people, and may even raise the risk of heart attacks in the days immediately following the spring time change.

Though efforts to alter or get rid of DST come up every year, it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. But what do you think?


Benjamin Franklin’s Essay on Daylight Saving (1784) – WebExhibits

Daylight Saving Laws (1922) – The Yale Law Journal (Internet Archive)

Daylight Saving Time in the United States – Wikipedia

History of Daylight Savings Time – Timeanddate.com

Saving Time, Saving Energy – California Energy Commission

8 Things You May Not Know About Daylight Saving Time – The History Channel

Daylight Saving Time 2014: When does it begin? And why? – National Geographic

Seize the Daylight: the curious and contentious story of Daylight Saving Time by David Prerau (2005)

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