Why do we change the clocks, anyway?

Published 10:28 am Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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Come Sunday, we will change our clocks as daylight saving time begins at 2 a.m. March 10, which means we will lose an hour of sleep Sunday morning but gain an extra hour of daylight time in the evening.

The idea of daylight saving time is to move an hour of sunlight from the early morning to the evening so that people can make more use of daylight.

The twice-yearly ritual has roots in cost-cutting strategies of the late 19th century. A recent effort to end it has stalled in Congress.

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Unlike other, easier-to-remember federal events, like the Fourth of July, in the United States the clock change is tied to a roving day: Since 2007, it has taken place on the second Sunday of March, when clocks spring forward an hour, and the first Sunday of November, when they go back. (In 2024, the clocks spring forward on March 10 and go back on Nov. 3.) 

The idea is to move an hour of sunlight from the early morning to the evening, so that people can make more use of daylight. Benjamin Franklin is often credited as the first to suggest it in the 18th century, after he realized he was wasting his Parisian mornings by staying in bed. He proposed that the French fire cannons at sunrise to wake people up and reduce candle consumption at night.

Over the next 100 years, the Industrial Revolution laid the groundwork for his idea to enter government policy. For much of the 1800s, time was set according to the sun and the people running the clocks in every town and city, creating scores of conflicting, locally established “sun times.”

In the United States, the federal government took oversight of time zones in 1918. And in March of that year, the country lost its first hour of sleep.

One of the oldest arguments for daylight saving time is that it can save energy costs. There have been many conflicting studies about whether it actually does.

Daylight saving time still has fervent supporters, especially among business advocates who argue it helps drive the economy. And, there are those who like the extra daylight at the end of the workday.

Days following time changes are a time of adjustment for many. It’s no surprise that momentum

appears to be growing to do away with the twice-a-year time change. Yet, few will disagree

that changing the time twice a year is inconvenient. Sunday, you “lose” an hour of sleep when the time jumps from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. in an instant. And in November, adjusting to sunset suddenly arriving an hour earlier is a dispiriting announcement that the short days of winter have arrived. 

Anyone seriously upset about losing an hour of sleep in March can simply go to bed an hour earlier than usual on the Saturday night before the time changes.

Congress has great power, but it cannot do anything about the seasons. Congress did not adopt a nationwide time standard until 1966. Much has changed in the 58 years since then – but it is likely that very soon, one thing that won’t change is the time.