Unintended Consequences of Daylight Saving Time

The Unexpected Impact of Changing Times

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Mar 9, 2014    •    811 Views

Beyond less sleep, when we moved our clocks ahead last night, we created many unintended consequences.

It all began during the 1880s when the railroads said that they should coordinate time. With railroad companies observing 52 different times and even more variation among cities and towns, a group of railroad managers proclaimed that the US shall have 4 standard time zones.

As a result, on Sunday, November 18, 1883, clocks, watches and schedules across the US adjusted as they implemented standard time. How much? It all depended on their time zone. On the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line, all conductors  were told to move their watches back 28 minutes.

Not everyone, though, was pleased.

Many people believed affluent industrialists had no right to change what nature created. Time was a local issue. If the sun was directly overhead, it was noon. Disagreeing, others wanted the consistency that would help economic activity.

In 1918, passing legislation that confirmed the 4 time zones, Congress added a controversial section. Called daylight saving (DST), it would move the clocks forward every May 31. Farmers objected saying their cows could not be milked and their work could not begin in dark wet fields. On the other hand, baseball team owners rejoiced. With games starting at 4:30 instead of 3:30, attendance would soar. Similarly, the founder of Filene’s department store chain looked forward to more women shopping after work because they could walk home before dark.

Summarized in Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, the debate was between tradition and modernity. Farmers said no while industry supported the idea. Some condescendingly said it would make early risers out of later sleepers. Others felt it encouraged more leisure and consumerism instead of the Protestant work ethic.

Only a year later, in 1919, Congress voted to end daylight saving and did not reinstate it until WW II. Since then, while the details have varied, Congress has supported DST.

Even Benjamin Franklin liked DST. Citing “the economy of using sunshine rather than candles,” he said that natural illumination at the end of the day meant using less tallow and wax. Franklin was right about illumination. However, when we move an hour of light from the morning to the evening, because our AC and heating demand rises, so too do our electric bills. In addition, a time change appears to increase workplace injuries and decrease safety for runners, cyclists and walkers.

Just springing forward by one hour affects our economy, our health and our energy use in so many good and bad unintended ways. Time is a personal, commercial and congressional issue.

"Figure 1 shows the sunrise and sunset times, the time shifting of DST, the 2007 extensions on both ends, and the day length throughout the year (the middle line) for a representative location in southern Indiana." From: "Does Daylight Saving Time Save Energy? Evidence From a Natural Experiment in indiana"

In addition to showing times for sunrise and sunset and time shifting in selected Indiana counties after they introduced DST, the middle line traces the day length throughout the year. From: “Does Daylight Saving Time Save Energy? Evidence From a Natural Experiment in indiana”

Sources and Resources: Fascinating and very readable, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time, was the source of my facts as was an NBER paper and articles from the NY Times “room for debate.” Instead though, you might just enjoy this recent NY Times article for a much briefer look at daylight saving.

Note: Sections of this post were excerpted from last year’s comments on DST.



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