The Strange and Surprising History of Daylight Saving Time

The practice of moving our clocks twice a year is awash with colorful characters and strange-but-true tales.

U.S. clocks spring forward again this Sunday, March 13, for daylight saving time, the annual event that stretches the hours of evening sunlight and irritates those who'd rather leave well enough alone

So who's responsible for this controversial clock changing? Ben Franklin first introduced the basic idea way back in 1784, but he did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek. 

French ambassador Franklin flashed his legendary wit with a letter to the Journal of Paris in which he claimed to be astonished, upon being awakened at 6 a.m., to find that the sun was already up. He, and no doubt his readers, had never seen the sun before noon. (Related: "Daylight Saving Time: 7 Surprising Things You May Not Know.")

“I saw it with my own eyes. And, having repeated this observation the three following mornings, I found always precisely the same result.” 

Money would be saved, Franklin argued, if people rose with the sun and turned in earlier at night, replacing hours of expensive candle use with free morning daylight. 

Just as modern daylight saving time—also known as daylight savings time—has its detractors, Franklin knew there would be opposition to his idea, and proposed measures including taxes on window shutters, rationing of candle sales enforced by police guards, a halt to non-emergency coach traffic after dark, and the firing of cannons in every street to get “sluggards” with the program. 

“All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days,” he reassured readers.  

Was Franklin serious? 

“It's easy to say Franklin was just joking, and of course he was spoofing the French for being lazy,” says Tufts University professor Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time

“But he was a big thrift guy. He constantly wrote about conservation issues, things like the amount of tallow used for candles. He couldn't stop noticing things that could be done more efficiently if they were done his way. So I think in the end it wasn't entirely a joke.”  

Creative Clock-Keeping 

U.S. states aren't required to observe daylight saving time (Arizona and Hawaii don't), but those that do now begin and end the practice at standardized times. That wasn't at all the case before the Uniform Time Act of 1966, when different states and even localities set their own timekeeping rules and created Kafkaesque confusion.

“In 1965 somebody wandered into an 18-story office building in St. Paul, Minnesota, and discovered that it housed 9 floors of city employees who did observe [daylight saving time] and 9 floors of country employees who did not,” Downing says.   

With localities free to handle daylight saving time however they wished, even a simple ride in the country could devolve into a morass of clock chaos. David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, cites the example of an early-1960s bus route from Moundsville, West Virginia, to Steubenville, Ohio. 

"Because some of the towns along the way observed [daylight saving time] and others did not, passengers had to change their watches seven different times along that 35-mile [56-kilometer] route,” Prerau says. 

Death Cheaters and Draft Dodgers

The history of daylight saving time is also awash with colorful characters and strange-but-true tales. (See "Time to Move On? The Case Against Daylight Saving Time.")

“Perhaps my all time favorite DST story is that of Sam Cardinella,” Downing says. “He was convicted of murder in Chicago in 1921 and sentenced to be executed.” 

“'When am I going to be hanged?' Cardinella asked. Told that the time was Friday, April 15 at 8:00 a.m., he asked, 'Central, standard, or Chicago time?'”

“They replied Chicago time. It's in Chicago you're going to be hanged. 'Yes,' Sam said, 'But I was sentenced before the time was changed and this rearrangement deprives me of an hour of life. That won't mean anything after I'm dead, but it will mean a lot Friday morning.'”

Jail officials consented to change the hanging to 9:00 a.m. Chicago time, granting the doomed man a small victory. (He refused to walk to his execution and was hanged in a chair, an event Ernest Hemingway fictionalized in In Our Time.)

Although Cardinella failed to cheat death, another young American had better luck during the U.S. Selective Service System's Vietnam War draft lottery, according to Prerau. 

Each birth date was randomly selected and assigned a draft order in which young men were called to service.  (Also see "The Surprising History Behind Leap Year.")

“Based on the day this guy was born, he had a low number and was very likely to be drafted,” Prerau says. 

“But he was born just after midnight. So he went to court claiming that in his state he was born under standard time, which would have been an hour earlier. That would mean his birth occurred before midnight and on a different day—which just happened to have a much higher lottery number. The courts agreed that he was right and he actually managed to avoid the draft in that way.”

Finally Falling Back in the USSR—After 60 Years 

Today most Asian and African nations skip daylight saving time, while most North American and European nations observe it.

But countries routinely change their timekeeping policies—sometimes for strange reasons. 

For example, history suggests the popular mnemonic "spring forward, fall back" may not translate well into the Russian language. (See "Permanent Daylight Saving Time? Might Boost Tourism, Efficiency.")

“Stalin changed the clocks in the spring of 1930,” Downing explains. “He forced all of the Soviet Union onto [daylight saving time]. And then in October he forgot to tell the Soviets to fall back. So the clocks in every Russian time zone were off by an hour for 61 years.”  

Soviet officials corrected the mistake in March 1991 by not leaping forward at the typical time. The Evening Moscow newspaper advised readers to not move their clock hands, but simply “go to bed as usual.” 

Of course, the history of daylight saving time being what it is, the fix wasn't quite that simple.  

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova still moved their clocks ahead, while Tajikistan, parts of Kazakhstan, and some other regions were actually instructed to move their clocks back an hour. 

Since then Russia has experimented with permanent “summer time” and now, as of 2014, eschews daylight saving time altogether for permanent Standard Time.  

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