Photo of a person adjusting the time on a clock

How did daylight saving time come to be, anyway?

Photo of John Grabowski
John Grabowski

Each year when we’re told to spring our clocks forward one hour to recognize daylight saving time, many people ask, “why?”

With that time shift just days away, The Daily wanted answers—and found them through John Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller Joint Professor in History in the College of Arts and Sciences. Grabowski specializes in immigration and ethnicity, local (Cleveland) urban history and public history.

Read on to learn from Grabowski about daylight saving time—and how time, in general, came to be such a crucial element in our society.

1. Daylight saving dates back to Imperial Germany—and its purpose has shifted over the decades.

That extra hour was good for war production and, moreover, it saved valuable energy (for lighting) during World War I. It was first used by Imperial Germany. The United States would copy this policy in 1918 and then quickly dispose of it once the war was over. It reappeared in the U.S. during World War II (as “War Time”) starting in February 1942 and ending in September 1945. 

It came back in 1966 with the Uniform Time Act. It was initially set to begin on the last Sunday in April and shift back to “normal” at the end of October. The beginning and end would shift again in 1987 and then, in 2007, come to its current time frame. The U.S. even toyed with a full year of daylight saving time from January 1974 to April 1975 to combat energy consumption during the oil embargo.

2. There are other topics to consider—and they relate to time and industrialization, as well as clocks and other timekeeping mechanisms.

Humans have long charted the seasons with stone circles and other devices, and recognized the three distinct parts of a day: sunrise, noon (when the sun was at its highest) and nightfall. With the advent of water clocks and, later, with early predecessors to modern clocks in the 13th century, time became a more precise commodity—for religious ceremonies and also for commerce and business.

By the 19th century, timekeeping had become an integral part of commerce and business. Whereas farmers lived what might be called a natural, seasonal day, factory work began and ended with the start of a shift and the end of a shift as dictated by the company clock. Essentially, as nations and societies industrialized, the naturalness of a day became passe. While the farm animals would awaken a farmer, the factory whistle would remind workers that it was time to go to work.

3. Time zones (in the continental U.S.) and railroads also had a role to play.

We all know them and set our clocks differently because of them—Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific and Alaska in the continental US. They came about because of a transportation revolution. By the late 19th century, railroads moved people and commerce faster than ever before. They could not work effectively or safely with the multiple local times spread across the nation—nearby communities would set their clocks to their own sunrise, noon and sunset.   

If one traveled by horse and wagon, it was a natural, gradual change from one clock setting to another from community to community. But it was one heck of a way to run a railroad—how did one create a reasonable and rational schedule for train travel and, more importantly, how could a railroad consistently ensure safety given the complexity of local times? 

Keeping time was critical, particularly on a single-track system, and thus railroad watches evolved into sophisticated and incredibly accurate timepieces (some of the best were made by Webb C. Ball of Cleveland). The zones we now live in were officially adopted by the railroads in 1883, and the following year the prime meridian was established at Greenwich—certainly not by American railroads, but as part of the ongoing “rationalization” of travel and business. In 1918, the Interstate Commerce Commission (which oversaw the railroads) made five time zones—Eastern, Central, Pacific, Mountain and Alaska—a part of national policy.

In one sense, we have (to use a Dr. Who title) been changed by our own “time lords” quite substantially during the past two centuries of industrial life. And while most of us might not be awakened by the chickens or cows, those of us who have dogs and cats still tend to live by a more natural clock—with or without DST.