Spring Forward, Fall Back

14 April, 1918

When you mess with Father Time, you can be sure be sure somebody is going to be riled. Reportedly, people rioted when Britain and its overseas territories (including its North American colonies) switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, fearing that the government had stolen a fortnight of their lives since 14 September followed immediately after 1 September. While this story is apocryphal, it’s no exaggeration that the adoption of daylight saving time a century ago was highly controversial. Although people didn’t come to blows, the time change pitted rural communities against urban centres across North America. So highly charged was the issue, the Canadian and U.S. federal governments, after a temporary wartime trial run in both countries in 1918, bowed out of the fray, leaving the decision to adopt daylight saving time to junior levels of government. For the most part, individual cities determined whether or not they would go on “summer” or “fast” time each year. You can imagine the confusion this caused. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that some official order was instituted in the United States, with Canadian provinces following suit to facilitate cross-border commerce. Even so, daylight saving time has continued to be divisive. In Saskatchewan, the provincial government promised a referendum on the issue in 2007 though it was never held. In March 2015, the National Post ran an article in favour of eliminating daylight saving time. You can even join a Facebook community contending that “Daylight Saving Time is torture and should be abolished.”

Benjamin Franklin is sometimes referred to the “inventor” of daylight saving time. When he was ambassador to France in 1784, he suggested that if people got up and went to bed earlier, they would make better use of their daylight hours, and would save a fortune in candles. Daylight saving time, in the sense of advancing the clock rather than just encouraging early rising, was first proposed in 1895 by New Zealander George Hudson. He argued in favour of moving clocks forward by two hours during the summer so that people could make better use of the morning light, and to have more time for outdoor activities in the evening. As a part-time entomologist, he wanted more time before dusk to devote to bug collecting after he had finished his day job with the Post Office.

George Hudson

George Hudson, (1867-1946), late in life, author unknown

In 1907, Englishman William Willett published a pamphlet titled The Waste of Daylight, and began a campaign to have daylight saving time introduced in the United Kingdom. He proposed a gradual phase-in of daylight saving time over four successive Sundays in April (20 minutes each Sunday morning) with a similar four-week phase-out in September. Like today, to minimize disruption, he proposed changing the time at 2am, a point in the day when few trains ran. He estimated that daylight saving time would save the people of Great Britain and Ireland at least £2,500,000 a year (a huge sum in those days) through a reduced need for artificial lighting during the evenings. Despite intensive lobbying of the British Government, Willett died in 1915 without seeing his idea implemented. Many ridiculed him.

Willetpamphlet

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet

It took World War I to shift opinions in Europe. The first country to adopt daylight saving time was Germany where clocks were advanced one hour on 30 April 1916. The principal reason was to conserve coal used to produce electricity. Britain, ashamed that an enemy country had acted before it had, swiftly followed suit with the Summer Time Act of 1916 under which daylight saving time began on 21 May 1916, and ended on 1 October. The experiment was deemed a great success, and was repeated in subsequent years. It was estimated that Great Britain and Ireland saved 300,000 tons of coal during the summer of 1916, equivalent to roughly 1.5% of production. Most other European countries also introduced daylight saving time that year.

While Britain may have been slow to act, some Canadians who were following the debate in London were more eager to experiment with ways to make better use of their early daylight hours. Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay) was the first Canadian community to effectively introduce daylight saving time by advancing its clocks one hour for a two-month summer trial period in 1908. The town’s residents liked the effect so much that the following year the community permanently shifted to the Eastern Time Zone from the Central Time Zone. Neighbouring Fort William followed suit in 1910.  In 1912, Orillia introduced daylight saving time starting on 23 June to run until the end of August. However, the town revoked “Orillia time,” after only two weeks owing to opposition from workers who refused to abide by the time change. Between 1914 and 1916, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, and Halifax also introduced daylight saving time for trial periods.

In Ottawa, City Council voted in early June 1916 to adopt daylight saving time, starting on 20 June 1916 and running until 1 October, on the recommendation of Mayor Nelson Porter and the Board of Control. A proclamation to this effect was prepared for the Mayor’s signature. However, the night before summer time was to begin, Council unanimously rescinded the measure owing to overwhelming community opposition. Businesses feared that if they advanced their clocks, competitors might not, allowing them to stay open an hour later in the day. The Ottawa Electric Railway, which operated Ottawa’s trams, also refused to abide by the Council’s decision. The final blow to the idea came from the lack of support from the federal government, the city’s largest employer. With the public service continuing to operate on standard time, daylight saving time in the capital was a non-starter.

Prompted by Europe’s successful experience with daylight saving time, the federal governments in both Canada and the United States passed legislation in 1917 to advance the clocks on a trial basis. Seen as a way to save fuel, the move was deemed imperative for the war effort. After considerable debate, the United States set daylight savings time to start the last Sunday in March, running until the last Sunday in October, i.e. 31 March 1918 to 27 October 1918. The debate in Canada was also lengthy, and, as was the case south of the border, pitted rural communities that wanted to maintain standard time against urban centres.  What swung the debate in favour of daylight savings time was the insistence of Canadian railways that they would adopt daylight saving time to remain consistent with U.S. railways regardless of what the federal government decided. Canadian rail companies were concerned about the impact on their schedules and the risk of accident should the U.S. and Canadian time practices diverged.

Sir George Foster, Minister for Trade and Commerce, led the fight in the House of Commons for daylight saving time, arguing that the primary consideration was “economy, particularly in the matter of lighting.” He noted that manufacturing industries, boards of trade, and business associations of towns and cities all favoured putting clocks ahead by one hour during the summer. But members of Parliament from farming communities were almost universally against the move. Rural MPs argued that farmers would have to continue to function on standard time as the tending of animals could not be advanced. As well, fields could not be entered until the dew had evaporated, which would be an hour later if clocks were set forward. This would leave less time at the end of the day for farm workers to go to town before the stores closed. Some also argued that daylight saving time went against God’s plan. Still others worried that it would be more difficult to get children to go to bed, and was therefore anti-mother. One MP disparaging said it was no surprise that boards of trade favoured daylight saving time since they were comprised of lawyers, doctors, and merchants who were eager to get in an extra round of golf or tennis game after work. Notwithstanding these many objections, the Daylight Saving Act 1918 was passed, but not in time for Canada to move in tandem with the United States. Daylight saving time started in Ottawa, and in most of the country on Sunday, 14 April 1918, two weeks after it did in the United States. Both countries returned to standard time on Sunday, 27 October.

Following the end of the war in November 1918, the rural lobby forced the U.S. and Canadian governments to back-track. In the United States, Congress voted to repeal daylight saving time, and successfully overturned a presidential veto by Woodrow Wilson, a daylight saving time supporter. In Canada, daylight saving time was overwhelmingly defeated in the House of Commons in early 1919. The defeat was described as “a great victory for the men who tilled the soil.” In both countries, the decision to adopt daylight saving time, as well as the dates of observance, became the responsibility of junior levels of government. Ottawa’s Mayor Fisher announced that the nation’s capital would observe daylight saving time from 14 April to 27 October 1919. Toronto and Montreal did likewise. However, south-western Ontario farming communities and Windsor remained on standard time. With Ottawa adopting daylight saving time, the big question was what the federal government would do. Despite its rejection of daylight saving time for the nation, the federal government relented when it came to its Ottawa civil servants to ensure that “the time outside the door of the Parliament building would coincide with that within the building.”

This patchwork of observance across North America continued through the 1920s and 1930s. But when World War II commenced, wartime exigencies again predominated; the conservation of electricity became of paramount importance. In Canada, a federal order-in-council, issued in late September 1940, extended daylight saving time indefinitely in Ontario and Quebec on the advice of the Ontario and Quebec Hydro Companies. Towns that had already reverted to standard time, such as Arnprior near Ottawa, were required to switch back to summer time. On 9 February 1942, year-round daylight saving time was extended to the entire country, coinciding with the adoption of a similar policy, called “War Time,” in the United States.

As was the case at the end of World War I, daylight saving time reverted to local control in both Canada and the United States at the end of World War II. Again, North America was divided up into a patchwork quilt of observance with varying start and end dates. In some parts of the United States, a short car journey could require several time changes. To reduce the risk of accident and scheduling costs, railways operated year-round on standard time. Order was finally restored with the introduction of the federal Uniform Time Act in 1966 in the United States that specified the start and end dates for daylight saving time in the United States, though the decision to advance clocks was left up to individual states. Although no such uniformity was legislated in Canada, provinces adopted in 1967 the U.S. dates for advancing clocks to facilitate cross-border trade. Consequently, in 2005, when the United States lengthened the period of daylight saving by roughly a month starting the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, Canadian provinces followed suit.

Today, most of Canada, with certain exceptions, observes daylight saving time. The largest exception is Saskatchewan. However, as that province adheres to the Central Time Zone despite being geographically in the Mountain Time Zone, it is arguably on daylight saving time all year round. Today most people take daylight saving time for granted, and enjoy the extra hour of light in the evening. However, opposition is on the rise owing to the inconvenience of adjusting clocks twice a year, and recent studies that suggest that the economic benefits from “springing forward” each March and “falling back” each November are minimal.

Sources:

CBC, 2008. “Springing forward, falling back: the history of time change,” 31 October, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/springing-forward-falling-back-the-history-of-time-change-1.755925.

Citizen, (The), 1916. “Daylight Saving Is Favored by Ottawa City Controllers,” 2 June.

————–, 1916. “Prepared For Proper Trial,” 6 June.

————–, 1916. “Will Try Out The Daylight Saving Plan,” 11 June.

————–, 1916. “Depends On Government,” 14 June.

————–, 1916. “Daylight Saving Is In The Balance, 15 June.

————–, 1916. “May Rescind Resolution,” 16 June.

————–, 1916. “Delay Trial of Daylight Saving Plan,” 20 June.

Globe, (The), 1912. “Orillia Revoked Daylight Saving,” 13 July.

————-, 1918. “Daylight Saving Over Continent,” 7 February.

————-, 1918. “Daylight Is To Be Saved,” 27 March.

————-, 1918. “Bill Through Committee Now,” 3 April.

————–, 1919. “Likely To Respect Daylight Saving,” 11 February.

————–, 1919. “Canada’s Parliament Spurns ‘Daylight Saving’ In Summer,” 28 March.

————–, 1919. “Summer Time Sweeps Land,” 31 March.

————–, 1919. “Parliament ‘About Turns,’” 12 April.

————–, 1922. “Save Daylight In Cities of U.S.,” 29 April.

————–, 1940. “Time Saving Is Extended Indefinitely.” 21 September.

————–, 1940. “Centres Which Turned Clocks Back Required To Revert To ‘Fast’ Time,” 24 September.

————–, 1942. “Daylight Time Now in Effect Throughout Canada and the U.S,” 9 February.

House of Commons Debates, 1917. Daylight Saving Bill, 23 July.

———————————-, 1918, Daylight Saving, 26 March.

Klein, Christopher, 2012, “8 Things You May Not Know About Daylight Saving Time,” History, 9 March, http://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-daylight-saving-time.

Macdonald, Cheryl, 2007. “The Battle for Daylight Saving,” Pinecone.on.ca, http://www.pinecone.on.ca/MAGAZINE/stories/BattleDaylightSaving.html.

National Post (The), 2015. “National Post View: Time to eliminate daylight savings,” 9 March.

Prerau, David. 2005, Seize the Daylight, New York, Thunder Mouth Press.

Willet, William, 1907. “The Waste Of Daylight,” Daylight Saving Time, http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/willett.html.

 

Image:

George Vernon Hudson, (1867-1946), late in life, author unknown, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Hudson_

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2011/11/saving-energy-the-fall-back-position/.

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