Americans switched over to daylight-saving time on Sunday, April 3. Most people in the United States probably do not give a lot of thought to the yearly ritual… other than to remember they should "spring forward," or set their clocks ahead one hour, in spring, and "fall back" when daylight-saving time ends in the fall. But as it turns out, daylight-saving time, now used in some 70 countries around the world, has a complicated and controversial history. As Americans get ready to enjoy an extra hour of sunlight, Brendan Dieck,13, of Philadelphia could not be happier. "I like daylight-saving time because I get an extra hour to be outside, and sunshine is like my natural battery," Brendan explains. "When it's winter I'm more depressed, because it's darker."
But not everyone shares Brendan's enthusiasm. In fact, writer Michael Downing says he can't think of a more controversial topic. He is the author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight-Saving Time. The book recounts a century's worth of claims that setting the clock ahead an hour is unnatural, confusing, and even sacrilegious.
"When it was first proposed," he says, "particularly the fundamentalist preachers in America objected to daylight-saving time, because they said it took the nation off of 'God's time.' It didn't help that the first Sunday America (went) on daylight-saving time in 1918 was Easter Sunday. And so a tremendous number of people were late to church."
The notion of trying to take advantage of more daylight hours has fascinated even the likes of American founding father Benjamin Franklin. But Michael Downing attributes the actual birth of the idea to an English architect named William Willett.
One morning in 1907, he was riding his horse through a London park. "It was sunrise and he noticed that everyone had their curtains drawn," says Mr. Downing. "He thought if we could just turn the clocks ahead by an hour, when people woke up, the sun would come up, and they would have an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day for leisure time."
The proposal set off a debate in the British Parliament that raged on until after World War I began in 1914. "Germany adopted daylight saving wholesale in hopes that it would save them energy," Michael Downing explains. "Once Germany did it, Britain did it, then the United States did it."
But Daylight-saving time was repealed in the United States in 1919, thanks in part to pressure from farmers. "No matter what time the clock said sunrise was, they were still having to get up when the roosters crowed," says Mr. Downing, "and there's no sunlight to dry their crops, which they can't harvest because there's so much dew on them."
A uniform American daylight saving policy finally went into effect in 1966. But some parts of the country had adopted it long before that time, with cities like New York helping lead the way. Michael Downing says Wall Street investors wanted a timetable as closely aligned as possible with financial markets in London, and department stores wanted more shoppers: "They figured if the workers were let out at 5 o'clock, and it was still sunny," he says, "they'd walk by the shop windows, be more apt to stop in and increase retail sales that way."
Baseball teams liked daylight-saving time because they could play extra innings in the days before ballparks had artificial lighting. Makers of outdoor barbecue equipment were also fans. "They figured out by the mid 1980s that for every extra month of daylight saving we had, they would pick up 150 to 200 million dollars in extra sales," says Michael Downing. "This goes too for seed retailers and gardening supply stores, because people have more time after work for gardening. There were also industries that have been long opposed to it. The movies suffered bad drops in attendance when it was instituted because people wanted to be outdoors."
For industries that need to keep to a strict time schedule, daylight-saving time can create extra problems. Cliff Black, director of media relations for America's passenger rail system, Amtrak, says that in the spring, when the clock moves forward an hour, nighttime trains around the country become an hour late. "The interesting time is in the fall," adds Mr. Black, "when you find those overnight trains running an hour early. But what we do in the fall is we simply stop the trains at the station, and we wait."
An added complication, notes author Michael Downing, is that Hawaii, Arizona, and parts of Indiana are not on daylight-saving time. "Indiana is the famous example in America," he says. "It's one of those states that has two time zones to begin with. Part of Indiana is Central time zone and part is Eastern, and some of the Eastern counties spring forward and some do not. Some of the Central counties spring forward and some do not. And this year again Indiana has its legislature grappling with this problem and not yet solving it."
After studying everything from Congressional testimony to newspaper editorials, Michael Downing concludes that the debate over daylight-saving time shows how a simple idea can end up generating elaborate arguments from both supporters and opponents. He also points out that it is misnamed. Daylight-saving time does not really save anything. But he is still a fan for the most basic of reasons-he loves those long, light-filled summer evenings.