Daylight saving time: It’s one of those things that we don’t really notice until it happens. Someone tells you “Hey, you get an extra hour of sleep this weekend.” You feel a little off for one day, but then you’re re-adjusted by Tuesday.

This always drags up the inevitable question: Why do we even have daylight saving time? What’s the point? And why is there a part of Arizona that doesn’t even observe daylight saving at all?

…. Is time even real?

The answer to why we have daylight saving is a simple one, similar to the reason why we have summer breaks in school: farming. The United States and the world for that matter used to be an agrarian society, unlike now where we follow clocks to tell us when to do things. In a farming society, everything is governed by the sun. The amount of sunlight directly affected how much work you could get done, and consequently how much money you would make.

They came up with a system: In the spring, we set our clocks earlier to allow more sunlight during the summer, and then we relinquish this gained time in the autumn. In other words, in the fall we transition from DST (daylight saving time, also called “summer time”) back to standard time.

When did this start? Contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin was not the mastermind to the whole concept of DST. While overseas, he jokingly published a pamphlet suggesting we adjust our time to the seasons because he noticed the French tended to sleep in, wasting daylight. He even calculated the amount of money that would be saved from not using candles —

“An immense sum! That the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles.” -Franklin, 1784

Franklin took his joke a step further, outlining a plan that would have the French rationing their candles and the government taxing window shutters to make sure light was maximized.³ Clearly, he didn’t mean to be taken seriously. Clearly, we did.

The United States first (seriously) adopted DST in 1918 after several European countries did during World War I (Germany and Austria-Hungary as a way to conserve coal). It was unpopular and abandoned, then brought back during World War II.

From 1945-1966 many states and municipalities were left to choose for themselves whether or not to observe: imagine how confusing that must have been. Have a meeting in the next town over at 6:00? Then you better leave your house at 6:30 to make it there on time.

There have been many more changes: In 1973 President Nixon signed the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Conservation Act amid an energy crisis to reduce the amount of incandescent lighting used in the evenings. Everyone observed DST for fifteen months and then went back to “normal.” Surprisingly, changes have even been made as recently as 2007. “Spring forward” was moved up to be three weeks earlier (it used to be in April) and “fall back” was pushed back to be one week later.

Spring forward, fall back: now most electronics automatically make the switch, but hand-tuning clocks can be tricky and sometimes even dangerous.

There are several arguments for why DST is not as beneficial now as it used to be. Since we don’t really need to maximize our farming time, it would save confusion to just remain in standard time. There have been many studies about the adverse effects of DST: One found that the risk of heart attacks increases in the first three days after DST.¹ Another detailed the increase in workplace injuries the Monday after DST begins.² Leaders of an anti-DST movement in the UK referred to it as “Daylight Slavings.”

Many also believe we should not manually change our clocks anymore because that distorts the real passage of time: How do we rely on something that seems so constant when we are always changing it to suit our needs? Franklin certainly didn’t have any qualms about this.

So, it seems like we’ve been messing around with time for quite awhile. The time right now (for me, 5:46 p.m.) isn’t really the time it would have been 100 years ago at exactly the same time.

Confused yet?

This all leads us to an even deeper answer to why we continue to use DST at all: social coordination. No one really cares enough to change the way we measure time just because our society (i.e., industrial and no longer agrarian) has outgrown it or some studies discuss temporary psychological phenomenon as a result of an hour difference in sleep. In the end, the negatives aren’t enough to change the fact that it would be a hassle to change all of our clock settings and spread the word to everyone that we are no longer observing DST.

In a sense, daylight saving time actually teaches us what the real purpose of time is – not to measure what is “real” (because, again, time isn’t real, right?) but to synchronize ourselves with each other and the rest of society. As long as our clocks all say the same thing, does the “real” time even matter?

1: New England Journal of Medicine, 2008

2. American Psychological Association, 2009

3. The Franklin Institute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *