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Spring Forward — Fall Back

Took me many years to figure that simple method out. That clocks would spring forward in the spring for daylight saving time and back in the fall to Standard Time.

There are some aspects of my life I just let happen. I don’t really question it. The ‘it’ has always happened when it was supposed to and the weave of life was undisturbed.

Occasionally, one of those ‘its’ catches my attention and I take a closer look. Right now, that would be time, or rather, the movement of clocks in the spring and fall.

Time changes have caught my attention more in the last year. Partially because when running radio shows online, I have to be more aware of time differences. Time zones can be confusing enough. Toss in semi-annual time changes, confusion grows. Then toss in those time changes happening at different times of the month or not happening at all.

It’s enough to make a person run screaming into the night, be it one hour earlier or later, depending on where you are.

The final tweak in my notice meter arrived in the form of a conversation taking place in a chat room. Like so much in life, the perceptions of where daylight savings time came from, when it started and why was, well, interesting.

Off I went to search out the answers. Or get even more confused. Who knows what the outcome could be?


Let’s start with time. If we didn’t have daylight saving time we’d still have time. So, let’s start with the constant.

There has always been a reason to keep time. Even before clocks were invented, people needed a way of expressing time. Could you imagine trying to arrange a lunch date without time?

“So meet me on Tuesday when the sun hits the church doors.”

“Great idea. I’ll be able to see the church from work.”

Tuesday arrives and it’s raining. I guess lunch is off.

The early Egyptians and Greeks used two methods to measure time. The most well known is the sundial and the lessor known is the water clock.


From the earliest of times people measured the passage of time during a day by the position of the sun in the sky. The earliest sundials consisted of a vertical stick in the ground. The length of the shadow cast indicated the time of day.

A sundial used local solar time and was built on the appearance of the sun crossing the sky from east to west as the earth turns on its polar axis.

By the 8th century BCE the sundial had become a more precise and detailed way to tell time. A shadow clock consisted of a straight base with a raised crosspiece at one end. On the base six divisions were inscribed. The crosspiece was placed in an east-west orientation with the raised portion at the east side in the morning and the west side in the afternoon. In some parts of Egypt, clocks like this are still in use.

As the sundials became increasingly detailed the precision with which they kept time was even more refined over time and across several cultures. At the beginning of the 13th century CE sundials were introduced with lines for equal hours. When mechanical clocks first started to appear in the early 14th century sundials with equal hours were introduced into Europe.

Until the 19th century sundials were still used to reset mechanical clocks.

Water Clocks

Also dating back to early Egypt and spreading into other cultures over the centuries, the water clock measures time through the regulated flow of water into or out of a vessel. The vessel is marked with lines to determine the time and as the water moves either in or out, the time can be read.

They were in use until the development of the mechanical clocks in the 17th century.

Now, it’s pretty easy to realize that both the water clocks and sundials were a way of keeping time but not as consistently as it could have been. The time of year, the land elevation, geographical location etc would impact on the use of the sundial and any number of variables could impact the accuracy of telling the time.

The Mechanical Age

The introduction of the mechanical clock in the 17th century created a greater standardization of time but only locally. Time could still vary in different cities and towns and drastically worst at sea.

On land, clocks could have standard local times based on longitude which increased the range over which times agreed. At sea, the mechanical clocks were not accurate enough to determine longitude or to determine scientific time measurements.

In 1764 the Chronometer was invented which measured time accurately even when motion was present or conditions varied. Sea going timekeeping was vastly improved.

As railways and telecommunications were developed in the 19th century variations in time across distances started to become problematic. Time was still being based on the sun which meant that standard time had a very short range. Scheduling rail times across vast distances like in North America was a nightmare. There could be up to 300 time zones to deal with.

Time for an international solution had arrived.

International Meridian Conference

In 1884 Sir Sandford Fleming, a Scottish immigrant to Canada was one of the key players organizing an International Meridian Conference in Washington, DC. Fleming had been instrumental in the development and building of the transcontinental railroad across Canada.

He was a strong advocate for developing and adopting a worldwide standard of time zones with one prime meridian from which all other zones would reference time in 24 hour increments.

The Greenwich meridian was the most popular choice, driven in part by the British dominance using the meridian for shipping and their charts which had been in publication since 1767. The observatory at Greenwich had been producing data of the highest quality for many years before the conference.

The Time Zones

Generally each time zone should cover 15 degrees of longitude. Actual borders of time zones have been drawn along internal and international borders. Toss in the International Date Line, which creates three time zones, and we have more than 24 time zones.

There is currently 38 different local times in use. Some are only 30 or 45 minutes apart rather than the one hour standard. For example Pakistan is UTC+5, India and Sri Lanka is UTC+5:30 and Nepal is UTC+5:45.

The Greenwich meridian was considered to be longitude 0 and all other time zones were plus or minus from that point. In 1972 the time standard Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) was adopted as the Universal Time and Greenwich Mean time became a time zone.

And Then Along Comes Daylight Saving Time

Clear as mud to this point, right?

We have time which has always been present, but, not always agreed how we’d keep track of time until after 1884 when the world agreed to and slowly started to adopt Universal Time zones.

The adoption of agreed upon time zones brought a lot of order to world commerce, shipping and railroads. Now, you’d think at this point, life should be good and everyone could just get on living their lives and letting time tick right along hardly noticed.

Not so Fast There

Something about being able to tinker with something just brings the desire to tinker out in people. It seems, time was not immune to further tinkering.

For those living on or near the equator, changes in the amount of daylight at different times of the year are barely noticeable. As we move away from the equator, the changes become pronounced with the least amount of daylight hours happening in the dead of winter.

Back in 1784 Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical essay suggesting Parisians should make better use of their daylight and save a lot of money on candles, if everyone just woke up earlier. He never did mention adjusting time.

He may have sparked some ideas to percolate.

In the waning years of the 1800 a couple of Brits, George Vernon Hudson and William Willett, started writing and presenting papers proposing different versions of daylight saving time. By 1907 Willett was lobbying the British parliament to implement daylight saving time to give workers more opportunity to enjoy sunlight during the summer months. People like Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle championed the idea.

It didn’t gain traction in Britain, but, for reasons unknown, the residents of Port Arthur, Ontario (now known as Thunder Bay) became the first in the world to implement daylight saving time in 1908. Other locations picked up on it and did the same.

The first country to implement daylight saving time country-wide was Germany in 1916 as a wartime economy measure. Other countries followed suit. And the chaos followed. With the prevalence of coal power, the move did save energy and contribute to the war effort.

Some countries dropped the practice after WW1 but left the option for local areas to carry on if they chose to. The United States was one of them. They repealed it nationally in 1919 leaving some states and cities to continue to shift their clocks.

Contrary to some beliefs, farmers did not champion daylight saving time. They opposed it. For them planting and harvesting revolved around the movement of the sun, not the clocks.

Daylight saving time was brought back nationally during WW2 and then three weeks after the war ended, repealed again, bringing back the chaos of clocks. Some would use it, some didn’t and even worse, those who used it, did so whenever they wanted to. In 1965 there were 23 different pairs of start and end dates for daylight saving time in Iowa alone.

By the end of WW1 Canada had adopted daylight saving time in most provinces and territories.

Order finally came in 1966 when the US passed a Uniform Time Act to standardize daylight saving time. It was to be the last Sunday in April and the last Sunday in October.

Since the late 1960s Canada has made their time changes match the US in order to have consistent social and economic interaction between the two countries. Since the Uniform Time Act was adopted the length of daylight saving time has been extended three times. Each time was claimed to save energy costs.

Changes was made during the energy crisis of the 1970s when Congress ordered states to go year round on daylight saving time from January 1974 until April 1975. They changed the times again in the 1980s and finally in 2007.

Other arguments in favour of changing the times were there would be fewer cars on the road in the dark evenings and thus fewer accidents and with more daylight hours, people could have more time for outside exercise in the good weather.

Currently daylight saving time runs from March until November in most places which use it but the dates the changes are made varies.

Do We Really Need It?

Discussion has endured throughout the 100 years plus since daylight saving time was first implemented on its value.

The arguments for energy saving has had some value over the years, however, as our heating and lighting needs change and become more energy efficient, those arguments lose their strength.

Studies have shown the change in time which disrupts sleep patterns can have a detrimental effect on our health.

Commerce being increasingly global these days is yet another argument against changing the time twice a year. Figuring out differences in time zones can be confusing enough, factor in time changes twice annually and international commerce and communications becomes a nightmare.

Many jurisdictions and countries have already opted out of time changes and are using the same time year round. Sounds like a great idea, let’s just do standard time year round.

Well, no, some of those jurisdictions actually like daylight saving time year round.

OH, will the chaos ever end?