History

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

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As Daylight Standard Time is restored for the next six months, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel recalls the roots of our semiannual clock-changing ritual. An excerpt:

And in 1976, the Rankin-Bass Act put this guy in charge of everything.

Like so much else the government does, Daylight Saving Time arose during war. Germany, pioneer of so many other forms of modern statism, was the first to impose the practice as an energy saving measure during World War I. Most of the other warring governments, including the United States under the perniciously meddlesome administration of president Woodrow Wilson, soon followed Germany's lead. Considered only an emergency act, Daylight Saving Time was repealed within the U.S. in 1919, over the veto of Wilson, who as an avid golfer wanted to keep the practice permanent. The repeal was supported by Wilson's heroic successor, President Warren G. Harding, who considered Daylight Saving Time a "deception."

During World War II, Congress enacted YEAR-ROUND Daylight Saving Time, again to conserve energy. In September 1945, at the war's end, what was officially designated as "War Time" was again repealed, leaving the practice entirely up to states and localities. This created a patchwork system, in which different states would start or come off Daylight Saving Time on different dates, if at all. As a result, United Airlines reportedly had to publish twenty-seven different time tables each year. So it was the airlines, along with other transportation industries, that lobbied for national uniformity, which was embodied in the federal Uniform Time Act of April 1966.

Elsewhere in Reason: Katherine Mangu-Ward offers some evidence that Daylight Saving Time does not actually save energy. Kerry Howley offers some more. Sam MacDonald mocks a proposal for "double daylight saving time."

Elsewhere not in Reason: Carl Watner argues [pdf] that a much more useful bit of temporal engineering -- North America's system of time zones -- owes its origins to voluntary cooperation, not state compulsion.