Daylight saving time – setting the clocks an hour forward from spring to autumn – enables regions to gain more daylight hours in the evening at the expense of later summer sunrises. But who first proposed daylight saving time? And which country was the first to adopt it? Dr David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, explains…


Why do we have daylight savings time?

The current system of daylight saving time (DST) is used in many countries around the world – including almost all countries in Europe, most of North America and some in the southern hemisphere – and its usage covers more than one billion people. But its history is a colourful and contentious one, with each country facing its own controversies.

It was American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, while living in Paris in the late 18th century, who first conceived the notion of rising closer to sunrise to make better use of sunlight. Imagine, he observed in 1784, how many candles could be saved if people awakened earlier. Although he never proposed putting the clocks forward, he whimsically suggested firing cannons in each square at dawn "to wake the sluggards effectually, and make them open their eyes to see their true interest”.

It wasn’t until 1895 that New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson became the first to propose putting the clocks forward in summer. He proposed an adjustment of two hours for five months of the year. While some New Zealanders were intrigued by Hudson's idea, many ridiculed it, and New Zealand didn’t adopt DST until 1927, more than ten years after numerous other countries had begun using it.

Whose idea was daylight savings time?

The man whose idea led directly to the DST we have today is a British builder named William Willett. In the early 1900s, Willett was up early each spring and summer morning for his daily pre-breakfast horseback ride outside of London. He lamented that few people were enjoying the "best part of a summer day" and, reflecting on this distressing waste of daylight, in 1905 he independently conceived of the idea of putting the clocks forward in summer.

Willett believed that this would take advantage of the bright beautiful mornings and give more light in the evening, and yet not change anyone’s normal waking hour. In 1907, he issued a pamphlet entitled ‘The Waste of Daylight’, giving details of his proposal. Robert Pierce MP favoured Willett's idea as soon as he heard of it, and in 1908 introduced it in parliament as the Daylight Saving Bill of 1908. Willett fought for years to gain approval of the concept in Britain.

circa 1900: British builder William Willett (1850 - 1915) whose pamphlet 'Waste of Daylight' (1907) first laid out a serious proposition for the daylight saving scheme. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British builder William Willett believed that that daylight saving time would take advantage of the bright beautiful mornings and give more light in the evening, and yet not change anyone’s normal waking hour. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There was very strong opinion on both sides. Among the many supporters was Winston Churchill, who gave a rousing pro-DST speech at Guildhall: “An extra yawn one morning in the springtime, an extra snooze one night in the autumn is all that we ask in return for dazzling gifts. We borrow an hour one night in April; we pay it back with golden interest five months later.” Other supporters included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and astronomer Sir Robert Ball.

But there was strong opposition from farmers, many scientists, and others. For example, farmers needed to follow the sun, not the clock – and a clock change would put them out of sync with the non-farming world. Scientists worried about the lack of continuity of data collection, while those who had recently finally achieved a worldwide standard time zone system didn't want to introduce any irregularities.

Yet Willett was relentless in his pursuit of DST (later called summer time). But his repeated attempts to pass a bill in Parliament all failed, and Willett died in 1915, never seeing his idea come to fruition.

Which country was the first to adopt daylight savings time?

However, word of Willett's concept had spread around Europe. As the First World War continued, Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany recognised that using Willett's DST would bring more sunlight to the evenings, replacing artificial lighting and saving precious fuel for the war effort. Thus taking the British idea, in 1916 Germany was the first country to adopt DST. Once it did so, Britain and European countries on both sides of the war quickly adopted DST, with the United States following suit on 31 March 1918, after it had entered the war.

Though Britain continued summer time each year after the end of the First World War, many countries, considering DST a wartime measure, discontinued its use. American farmers defeated urban dwellers and President Woodrow Wilson to get DST repealed, returning the US to ‘God's Time’. Between the world wars, spotty and inconsistent use of DST in parts of the United States and around the world sometimes caused problems, unusual incidents and, occasionally, tragedies. For example, disregard of a DST clock change caused a major train wreck in France, when one train's crew neglected to make the correct clock change and thus was one hour ahead of where it should have been.

When the Second World War began, all combatants on both sides quickly adopted DST to save vital energy resources for the war. The United Kingdom extended summer time to the entire year (and thus the sunrise was a hour later the entire year), and later added double summer time (two hours advanced) in the summers. The United States similarly enacted Franklin Roosevelt's year-round DST law 40 days after Pearl Harbor was attacked. With the end of the war, some countries abandoned their wartime DST while others continued it into the postwar years. Britain reverted to its prewar policy of summer DST.

1930s: Children protest the daylight-savings time. (Photo by Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
1930s: Children wear signs protesting daylight saving time. (Photo by Walter Kelleher/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

In the US after the war, national DST was repealed, and DST became a local option. This caused widespread confusion because each US locality could adopt, start, and end DST as it desired. For instance, one year saw 23 different pairs of DST start and end dates used in the state of Iowa alone. And on one West Virginia bus route, passengers had to change their watches seven times when travelling just 35 miles. The situation led to millions of dollars of costs, especially in transportation and communications. Finally, in 1966, the US enacted a law requiring that if DST is utilised, it must be statewide, and that all states using DST must start and end it on the same dates.

A US Government poster from 1918 showing Uncle Sam turning adjusting a clock for summertime. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
A US Government poster from 1918 showing Uncle Sam turning adjusting a clock for summertime. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

The UK experimented with year-round summer time, called British Standard Time (BST), for three years, from 1968 through 1971. Opposition had grown from many, especially northerners, because of their strong dislike of the very dark mornings for going to work and their anxiety about possible accidents caused by sending young children to school in the dark. Farmers, building trades workers, foresters and others voiced deep opposition because they could not start work properly in the dark mornings. This opposition led the House of Commons on a free vote to vote strongly, 366 to 81, to end BST.

In 1973, an Arab Oil Embargo caused the first prolonged peacetime energy shortage in the United States. President Richard Nixon and Congress quickly established extended DST as a way to save energy. After the crisis was over, the US reverted to six months of DST, from May through October. This period was extended in 1986 to include April.

Why do the clocks go forward at different times in the US and the UK?

In 1996, after many years of non-uniformity of DST policy in Europe – especially between the continent and the UK –the European Union, including the UK, adopted a summer time period from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October.

As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the US DST period was extended by about one month, commencing in 2007. Since that time, the US has begun DST two or three weeks before the UK and the rest of the Europe, and has ended it one week later.

Most studies show that DST for all the days from spring to autumn has several benefits, including: reducing automobile accidents; reducing energy usage; cutting outdoor crimes like mugging; and increasing public health by getting people outdoors more. And there’s the simple quality-of-life advantage that most people prefer having an extra hour of sunlight in the evening rather than the early morning. There are some recent proposals in Europe and in the United States to extend DST year-round. This might extend some of DST's benefits to winter, probably at a diminished level – but would bring very dark mornings for sending children to school and for going to work.

Dr David Prerau is the author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time (Basic Books, 2006)


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in May 2019