Daylight saving time: Why do we have to lose an hour of sleep?

Daylight saving time was inspired by a sarcastic comment by Benjamin Franklin

Ready to spring forward? No, not that new physical fitness craze. It is the clock thing that drives Americans mad this time of year.

Daylight saving time returns at 2 a.m. Sunday, when it magically becomes 3 a.m., much to many folks’ consternation.

A 2013 Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 37% of surveyed Americans thought daylight saving time was worth the hassle of lost sleep, readjusting of clocks and groggy feeling. Not surprisingly, 45% turned thumbs down to the whole thing.

Yet, the practice continues despite the handful of efforts over the years in various states seeking to drop out of the daylight saving time regimen.  One such effort was recently shelved in Idaho. Another is pending in Alaska as part of a move to readjust time zones there.

In the United States, the federal government doesn't require the states to comply with daylight saving time. Hawaii and Arizona (except for residents of the Navajo Indian reservation) have spurned the practice.

Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands also reject the temporal shift.

Nor is daylight saving time universal. Only about 70 countries around the world adhere to the twice a year adjustment. Two of the biggest nations, China and India, do not abide by it. 

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the daylight saving time is that somehow by shifting the clock, people are changing the number of hours of daylight. Wrong. What is changing is how society organizes itself to take advantage of natural light. 

Daylight saving time (note that adding an “s” to make it savings time is not just gauche, it is wrong) is essentially a product of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial societies are based on clocks, work shifts and transportation schedules. 

As societies became more industrial and urban, officials sought to help organize the hours of daylight. By contrast, agricultural societies are based on daylight, hence the phrase early to bed, early to rise.

Jumping the clock ahead in the spring and summer months allows more time to enjoy outdoor activities. Lights aren’t needed so energy can be saved, goes at least part of the argument. Tourism gets a boost as well. By falling back in the autumn months, children get more daylight to travel to school in the morning.

So where -- or more precisely when -- did this all happen?

The idea is usually blamed on Benjamin Franklin, who was busy cutting a wide swath through Parisian society in 1784 when he wrote a letter to a friend about how to fight the cost of candles by better using the sun’s natural rhythm.

"If I had not been awakened so early in the morning," he wrote, "I should have slept six hours longer by the light of the sun, and in exchange have lived six hours the following night by candlelight; the latter being a much more expensive light than the former." Franklin went on to calculate a massive seasonal savings for Paris if people simply woke up earlier.

Frugality was important to  “penny-saved-penny-earned” Franklin, who later earned a place on the $100 bill. In his letter, he was being sarcastic, but his argument about energy savings has echoed down the centuries.

During World War I in 1918, the United States enacted the Standard Time Act, which officially established time zones and incorporated daylight saving months into federal law. The idea was if daytime hours were coordinated with natural light, fewer tasks would need to be done at night.

When the War to End All Wars ended, so did daylight saving time. Until World War II, when the federal government brought it back as a conservation measure.  

In the go-go postwar period, states were allowed to determine their own measurement of time, causing confusion. In 1966, Congress sought to straighten out the mess by passing the Uniform Time Act, which established norms but gave states the right to withdraw.

In 1973, the conservation argument came back with a renewed vigor for 15 months when Richard Nixon used it to make daylight saving time year-round to deal with the rising price of oil during the energy crisis sparked by OPEC.

Despite its acceptance, the conservation argument has been sharply criticized by economists and others.

Hendrik Wolff, an environmental economist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleague Ryan Kellogg studied Australian power-use data surrounding the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when parts of the country extended daylight saving time to accommodate the Games.

“Basically if people wake up early in the morning and go to bed earlier, they do save artificial illumination at night and reduce electricity consumption in the evening,” Wolff found. “Our study confirmed that effect. But we also found that more electricity is consumed in the morning. In the end, these two effects wash each other out.”

That washed-out feeling also applies to people.

The change means that people lose an hour of sleep this weekend, though they will get it back in the fall when the clocks go the other way. On average, it is all the same, but most people will feel sluggish on Sunday and the early part of next week, because an hour change is the equivalent of a small jet lag.

Still, daylight saving time has become bit more hassle-free over time. 

For most people who live in the 21st century, the adjustment will take place automatically on smartphones, computers and tablets that have become the real timekeepers instead of watches and clocks.

But those of you still living with non-automated temporal devices on your wrists or shelves will have to manually upgrade the time to stay, well, au courant.

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