November 4, 2011
At 1:59 AM on Sunday morning most of us in the U.S., across Europe, and in several other countries around the world will be experimenting with time travel. No, it won’t involve Deloreans or Morlocks or robots that look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when the second hand passes 59, we will get another crack at 1 a.m. as Daylight Savings Time comes to an end.
But why do we do this odd biannual ritual? And does it really save us money?
Contrary to popular belief, Ben Franklin did not invent Daylight Savings Time. What he satirically proposed was that to save money on candles, the hard-partying 18th century French try waking up earlier to use more daylight. Franklin also proposed that the Parisian dawn be greeted by cannon fire to ensure that its citizens were awake.
In fact the idea of Daylight Savings Time is ancient. Agrarian societies would simply adjust their sense of time to the sun. Roman Empire-era water clocks would have different settings for different months to account for the difference in the times of sunrise and sunset.
But the idea of Daylight Savings Time as we know it first required the standardization of time itself that came with the introduction of the railroads and their need for fixed schedules. It was first proposed in 1895 by New Zealand Entomologist George Vernon Hudson who wanted more sunlight after quitting time so he could add more bugs to his collection. The British construction magnet William Willett took up the cause, primarily because he was tired of cutting short his games of golf at dusk.
The first people to actually implement the idea however, were, in fact, the efficient Germans, who viewed it as a way to save coal during World War I. The Allies soon followed suit, and the U.S. shortly after, adopting the practice in 1918.
So beyond Franklin’s Protestant work ethic and extending the after-hour hobbies of two Brits…are there any tangible benefits to the practice?
The theory behind Daylight Savings Time, particularly in the pre-electric days, was that during the summer too much daylight was being slept away. By shifting the clock forward in the spring, more sleeping was done during the hours of darkness and fewer candles would be burned in the evening due to the later sunset. One would assume that this same shift would apply to electricity usage.
But an interesting case study can be found in Indiana (this author’s home state), which did not adopt Daylight Savings Time until 2006. In 2008 a survey was done of Indiana power consumption both before and after the adoption of DST. The study found that power consumption after DST adoption actually increased, primarily in the late summer/early fall as more heating was required in the morning and there was still some need for cooling in the afternoon. The overall cost to the Hoosier state was estimated to be $9 million, with an additional $2 million to $5.5 million in pollution costs.
Regardless of the costs or benefits though, tomorrow night most of us will go to bed treasuring a priceless commodity…one extra hour of sleep.