Saving Daylight

Insects. Candles. Golf. Coal. Depending on who you ask, each of these three things had a role in the “spring forward, fall back” mantra called Daylight Saving Time.

George Vernon Hudson of New Zealand, a postal worker by day, wanted more time for his hobby — entomology, the study of insects. Hudson has taken a liking to insects early in life, having published his first paper on the subject at age 14. But there were never enough hours in the day — literally. In 1895, then in his 20s, Hudson was a shift-worker for the post office, requiring that his hobby be relegated to after-hours. Noting that a two-hour shift of daylight time would give him more time after work to study insects (while not impacting the number of daylight hours during which the post office was open), Hudson took his proposal to the powers that be in New Zealand, authoring two papers on the subject. He was unsuccessful in getting the plan adopted, but, for the first time in recorded history, someone had taken up the Daylight Saving Time mantle.

A few years later, a British man independently came up with the Daylight Saving Time concept. In 1907, William Willett, a builder, penned a paper called “The Waste of Daylight” (here) arguing that we spend too much of summer’s daylight time asleep — a terrible waste of leisure time. (While not in the paper itself, many believe that Willett originally took up the cause, in part, because he wanted more time to play golf.) He also estimated that the British economy lost over 2.5 million pound sterling due to the unnecessary use of artificial light. Then 51 years old, Willett devoted the rest of his life to the cause, proposing that clocks be turned forward 20 minutes each Sunday in April (for a total of 80 minutes) and returned to “normal” time slowly over four Sundays in September. While he managed to get the ear of a Member of Parliament and get a bill introduced, he was otherwise unsuccessful in getting anyone to adopt his plan. He died in 1915.

The early work of this duo was not for naught. The seed of their ideas — probably more Willet’s than Hudson’s, due to simple geography — were well-planted and yielded results soon after — in Germany. On April 30, 1916, the Germans became the first nation to implement Daylight Saving Time, which they did for coal preservation. By turning the clocks forward, they burned less coal during wartime and gained the advantage of their adversaries. That advantage was short-lived, as most European nations quickly adopted Daylight Saving Time soon thereafter. Russia followed the next year and the U.S. in 1918.

But Daylight Saving Times never has — and never will be — universal. The map above (larger version here) shows where DST is still employed (in blue), has never been used (red), and was once but is no longer (orange).

Bonus fact: Insects, golf, and coal are covered above. But candles? Credit Ben Franklin’s sense of humor for that one. In 1784, over a century before Hudson penned his treatises, Franklin anonymously wrote a letter to the Journal of Paris, chastizing Parisians for what he believed to be lazy demeanors, demonstrated by the cultural habit of sleeping in late. Franklin, tongue firmly planted in cheek, argued in part that Parisians wake up with the Sun, in effect shifting their clocks forward, to minimize the amount of time awake but without sunlight. The goal: to reduce the need for candles. What was a joke in the 18th century became a good idea in the 20th.

From the Archives: Pumpkin Saving Time: And now, we can add candy pumpkins to the list of things involved in Daylight Saving Time’s checkered history.

Related reading: “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time,” by Michael Downing. 4.5 stars on 11 reviews. Not available on Kindle.

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