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A Brief History of (Daylight Saving) Time

A 1918 poster celebrating the adoption of Daylight Saving Time in the United States.
Library of Congress

It's easy enough to take it for granted today, but we didn't always "spring" the clock forward during winter’s waning days. In fact, for much of the 20th century, the practice was downright controversial. And as it turns out, the commonwealth of Massachusetts has played a big role in our brief history of Daylight Saving time.

The premise is simple enough. As the days start getting longer, you shift the clock by one hour. This means more of the additional daylight occurs in the evening, when more people can enjoy it. So come June - the sun isn't rising at 4 a.m. and setting at 7:30 p.m., it's rising at 5 a.m. and setting at 8:30 p.m. 

A similar idea was first floated way back in 1784 by one of Massachusetts’ most venerable innovators, Benjamin Franklin, as a way to save money on candles. The difference? Franklin didn't want to change the time. He wanted to change the time people woke up. By firing cannons.

As it turns out, shifting the clocks was an easier sell. Daylight Saving Time (DST) was first put into practice by the Germans in 1916 during World War I as an energy saving measure. Other countries—including the United States—quickly followed suit.

But its implementation caused a firestorm here in the States. Within a year of its adoption, Congress repealed the practice, despite a presidential veto and fervent opposition from prominent Bay Staters, including Rep. James Gallivan, Boston Mayor Andrew Peters, and department store mogul A. Lincoln Filene.

For the next five decades, aside from a brief period during WWII , it was up to state and local governments to decide whether they would practice Daylight Saving. Some did, some didn’t. So, when it was noon in North Carolina it was 1:00 p.m. here in Massachusetts. In Kentucky, on Central Time, it was 11 a.m., except in Louisville where it was also noon. If it sounds confusing, that's because it was.

Congress put an end to the madness once and for all in 1966 (sort of) by passing the Uniform Time Act. "Uniform" time was not unanimous however, with exceptions being made for a few holdouts like Indiana, Michigan and a few others. Arizona and Hawaii still don't observe DST. (Once again, the Bay State threw its weight behind the cause, with nine of Massachusetts' 11 congressmen voting in favor of the measure in the House.)

In 2005, Congress revisited the law and moved the start of DST up from the first Sunday in April to the second Sunday in March. That amendment was co-authored by yet another Massachusetts leader—Rep. Edward J. Markey.

Today, Daylight Savings no longer stirs the controversy it once did. Groups who once fervently opposed the practice, like farmers, no longer resist.  

"In general farmers are kind of quiet on the issue," said Rich Bonanno, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. "I honestly hear no negative comments about Daylight Saving Time, one way or the other." 

In fact, Bonanno looks forward to it.

"I personally like going out after supper and having a couple extra hours of daylight to continue to work with some peace and quiet with all the help gone," he said. "I think its good for me to be out there at that time."

That doesn't mean DST doesn't still have its detractors. Some studies have shown that the shift can lead to poor  health effects – even a spike in heart attacks. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ended the practice there in 2011 saying it “deteriorates national health.” There’s even a Facebook page for mothers who say it disrupts their children’s schedules.

Health concerns aren’t the only reason people object. Sky and Telescope Magazine's Kelly Beatty said it also poses a problem for thousands of amateur astronomers.

"In the summertime it gets dark so darn late way up here in the north, that it doesn’t leave many hours for stargazing," Beatty said. "So I have a definite ‘bah humbug’ opinion about Daylight time.”

Whether you're for or against it, one thing Daylight Saving means for all of us is that warmer weather is ahead. And this year, after all the snow, it comes just in the nick of time. 

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