Brief History of Springing Forward into Our Biannual Jet Lag


Poster announcing “An Act to Preserve Daylight and Provide Standard Time for the United States” in 1918. Wikipedia.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 12, while most of us are tucked warmly into bed, time will spring forward into Daylight Savings Time (DST), and with it, our excitement blooms like a crocus in the snow. Spring is coming, Jon Snow.

Cute internet reminders will flutter across our screens like returning butterflies telling us, “Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour.” Ironically, these are posted and read on phones and computers that automatically change the time for us. Perhaps our posts should simply say, “Just look at your phone.”

In a way, the internet buzz is our healthy communal rite celebrating the eve of spring. We “spring forward” in time to extend the daylight into the evening, hopefully bringing an abrupt end to winter's dark, claustrophobic days. Put away the therapy light and change the batteries in the smoke detectors. The mood lift is worth losing an hour of sleep and a week of systemic adjustment.

The original intention of DST (called “Summer Time” in many places worldwide) was to make better use of daylight. We change our clocks at the end of winter to move an hour of sunlight from the morning to the evening. In the fall, we carry that hour of light back to the morning.

Benjamin Franklin first conceived the idea of daylight saving during his sojourn as an American delegate in Paris in 1784 in his essay, “An Economical Project.” Not much was done with the idea until more than a century later when, in April of 1916, during World War I, Germany and Austria began saving an hour of daylight by advancing the hands of the clock one hour until the following October. The extended hour of light was designed to conserve the fuel needed to produce electric power.

Other countries quickly followed. The U.S. formally adopted “An Act to Preserve Daylight and Provide Standard Time for the United States” in 1918. But in our predominantly agricultural society of the time, people generally rose earlier in the morning and went to bed earlier in the evening. And nobody likes going to work when it’s dark and to bed when it's still light out. The Act was wildly unpopular and was repealed in 1919.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted year-round “Daylight Saving Time,” calling it “War Time.” In the years that followed, DST was a patchwork affair. Afterward, from 1945 to 1966, there was no federal law regarding DST, so states and localities were free to choose whether or not to observe DST. They could decide for themselves when it began and ended. This understandably confused migrating masses and businesses based on schedules, such as the broadcasting industry, railways, airlines, and bus companies.

President Nixon federally standardized the practice during the energy crisis of the 1970s by signing into law the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act of 1973. In 2007, the Legislature determined DST would begin at 2:00 a.m. on the second Sunday of March and end at 2:00 a.m. on the first Sunday of November. The time of 2:00 a.m. was chosen to minimize disruption.

Today, DST is a regular part of our lives, and most of us don't think twice about adjusting our clocks twice a year. But that doesn't mean there aren't debates and disagreements about its merits. Now and then, a bill gets introduced to do away with it, but it falls back like a clock in autumn.

Take note. The elimination of DST would mean staying on Eastern Standard Time year-round. In June, Michiganders would see the sunset around 8:00 p.m. and sunrise around 5:00 a.m. Few people in the Great Lake State, residents or vacationers, want to sleep through an hour or two of daylight in the morning for earlier darkness at night.

Practical reasons set aside, DST remains a powerful symbol of the changing seasons and the arrival of spring. Although we may feel as lethargic as a mammoth coming out of the ice for a few days, we can soon shrug off our winter cocoons to flutter freely in the warming sun. It is a reminder of the promise that with every winter, there comes a spring.

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