Who Invented Daylight Saving Time And Why?

From Ancient Rome to a small town in Canada, Daylight Saving Time has a facilitating and surprisingly long history.
Christopher McFadden

Love it or hate it, Daylight Saving Time (DST) is commonly used by many nations around the world. While its implementation is something relatively new, the principle is much older.

From the Ancient Romans to Benjamin Franklin, a form of DST has been used over for many centuries. Yet it would take a little known English builder and some lobbying and the First World War to finally get it officially adopted by the UK and Germany.

But even these two great empires were trumped by an idyllic town in Ontario, Canada back in 1908.


Who first suggested Daylight Saving Time?

The earliest recorded proponent for what we called Daylight Saving Time was a British tradesman called William Willett. Apparently, the idea struck him whilst on an early-morning horseback ride on the outskirts of London in 1905.

During the ride, he had an epiphany that people in the United Kingdom could enjoy more sunlight if they moved their clocks forward 80-minutes between April and October. He published his thoughts in a 1907 brochure called "The Waste of Daylight".

The inspiration for his idea was his observation that despite the fact the sun had, more or less, fully risen, all the blinds of nearby houses were shut closed.

His idea was to advance the clock by 20 minutes every Sunday in April. Then to reverse the procedure in September of every year.

Within his pamphlet he wrote: "Everyone appreciates the long, light evenings. Everyone laments their shortage as Autumn approaches; and everyone has given utterance to regret that the clear, bright light of an early morning during Spring and Summer months is so seldom seen or used."

He also went as far as to use most of his personal fortune to spread the word about his idea. He vehemently advocated for "Summer Time" and began to lobby the British government.

He soon caught the attention of the authorities. Robert Pearce (later Sir) introduced a bill to the House of Commons in 1909. 

This bill failed and further attempts to re-introduce the bill were met with ridicule and opposition by Members of Parliament. Those with farming interests were particularly resistant to the idea.

Willet died in 1915 at the age of 58 and would never see his idea put into use in the United Kingdom just a year later in 1916. 

Did Ben Franklin invent Daylight Saving Time?

It is widely believed that Benjamin Franklin might well have been one of the first people to propose the idea. In his 1784 essay "An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light", we mused about the potential benefits of such a venture.

At this time Benjamin, then 78-years-old, was an American envoy to France in Paris. Apparently, despite his espoused virtue of "early to bed and early to rise", he wasn't too keen about being roused from sleep early.

daylight saving time Benjamin Franklin
Source: The White House Historical Association/Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that one morning he was rudely awakened at 6 a.m. one summer morning. This inspired him to write his now-famous essay on the subject. 

After some thought, Franklin calculated that Parisians could save a whopping $200 million per year (by today's standards) through savings in candle burning if they changed their sleeping patterns. 

Here was his rather detailed calculation:-

"In the six months between the 20th of March and the 20th of September, there are:

Nights 183
Hours of each night in which we burn candles 7
Multiplication gives for the total number of hours 1,281
These 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000, the number of inhabitants, give 128,100,000
One hundred twenty-eight million and one hundred thousand hours spent at Paris by candle-light, which, at half a pound of wax and tallow per hour, gives the weight of 64,050,000
Sixty-four million and fifty thousand pounds, which, estimating the whole at the medium price of thirty sols the pound, makes the sum of ninety-six millions and seventy-five thousand livres tournois 96,075,000

An immense sum!"

Impressive work Mr. Franklin.

Whilst this essay was partly satirical, it has since been used as evidence for Benjamin Franklin inventing daylight saving time. He only actually proposed different sleeping times, not actually changing the time.

The notion was then 'put to bed' until the early 20th Century.

Who started Daylight Saving Time and why?

Whilst William Willet's dream of "Summer Time" was finally realized in 1916, Britain was not the first country to introduce the measure. In fact, it was Britains mortal enemy during World War One, Germany, who would first embrace daylight saving time.

Their justification, seemingly inspired by Benjamin Franklin, was economical. Germany, in 1916, introduced daylight saving time in an attempt to conserve electricity to help with the war effort.

The German Empire and its ally Austria introduced DST on April 30th, 1916. 

Only a few weeks later, the United Kingdom Parliament finally relented and introduced DST themselves. France and many other countries also began to introduce DST around the worlds soon after.

But for most of these nations, the measure was only temporary. Most of them reverted to standard time after the First World War, and it wasn’t until the next World War that DST made its return in most of Europe.

But even the mighty German and British Empire's appear to have been trumped by a small town in Canada. The residents of Port Arthur, Ontario (numbering only a few hundred residents), introduced a similar measure in July of 1908. 

Other parts of Canada began to copy them and in April of 1914, Regina in Saskatchewan implemented DST.

Winnipeg and Brandon in Manitoba did the same in April of 1916. According to the April 3, 1916, edition of the Manitoba Free Press, Daylight Saving Time in Regina “proved so popular that bylaw now brings it into effect automatically”.

daylight saving time canada
Source: P199/Wikimedia Commons

When did Daylight Saving start?

When Daylight Saving Time began rather depends on your definition. Modern DST is actually quite a modern idea and is only just over 100 years old.

But the principle has been used in the past. Ancient civilizations have been known to engage in a similar practice millennia ago.

For example, it was not uncommon throughout the Roman Empire for water clocks to be adjusted to different scales throughout the year. This was an attempt to adjust daily schedules to fit solar time throughout the year.

The adjustment of clocks by a set time during summer months was first observed, as we have seen, in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) in Canada in 1908. The first official DST to be adopted by a nation was Germany (and Austria) in 1916 at the height of the First World War.

They were quickly followed by the United Kingdom the same year. DST then spread around the world and is used by around 70 countries worldwide.

It is estimated that around 1 Billion people are affected by DST every single year but the beginning and end dates do vary around the globe.

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