Most Americans will "spring forward" this weekend and lose an hour to daylight saving time. But daylight savings is hardly standardized in the United States, much less the world: Both Hawaii and Arizona will stick with standard time on Sunday, and Europe won't spring forward until March 30th. Few other countries practice daylight savings at all.
Michael Downing, a lecturer at Tufts University and author of the book "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time," started wondering about the history and purpose of daylight savings a few years ago. He began to research the phenomenon and realized that most of the justifications for the practice that he remembered had very little to do with its existence.
"There's a reason for doing it—it's simply not the reason we were told for the past 100 years, which was to save energy," says Downing. "We haven't squeezed a drop of energy out of our clocks yet, but there are a number of reasons we are doing it and continue to get more of it every year."
Downing says that while most people believe that daylight saving time was designed to benefit farmers or school children, those theories are actually false.
"In fact, school children and their advocates have always opposed daylight saving because by moving the clocks forward we get less morning sunlight and children are out on dark streets," he says. "The same goes for the farmers. I always thought we did it for the farmers and that I was assisting American agriculture in some way every spring. It turns out, the farmers has always hated daylight saving."
So if daylight savings isn't helping children or agriculture, why is it that the United States follows through with this tradition? Downing says the answer can be found in the sport of golf. He says it is "the most important reason we're still doing and expanding the period of daylight saving time."
"For people who don't play golf, they should care a lot about the fact that daylight savings time creates additional opportunities for people to play golf," says Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation. "From an economic standpoint, golf on a national level creates almost $70 billion a year in economic impact. It employs almost 2 million Americans, it generates almost $4 billion in charitable giving, almost all of which goes to causes outside of golf. In addition to that, golf facilities are small businesses and they're usually among the most stable employers and source of revenue for local suppliers than any other business."
So did the sports lobby alone create the false myths about farmers and school kids to make sure daylight saving time stays a reality? According to Downing, the effort to roll the clocks ahead is also an initiative pushed by the business community.
"Since 1915, the principal supporter of daylight saving in the United States has been the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of small business and retailers," says Downing. "The Chamber understood that if you give workers more sunlight at the end of the day they'll stop and shop on their way home. It's not just golf—the barbecue industry loves daylight savings, so do the home good stores because people tend to go out of their houses, see that their roofs need replacing and buy more shingles. It's a really important part of niche marketing for the retail industry."
While it's not just the United States that toys with the clocks, China is one place that doesn't mess around with daylight saving time. Despite being only slightly larger geographically than the United States, China only has one single time zone that spans 3.69 million square miles. The nation tried daylight saving time for a five year period but gave it up. But China is not an outlier—Downing says that other nations have fiddled with their clocks to make one standard national time.
"Once we got onto clocks, governments got the idea that they were related somehow to efficiency and therefore by playing with them you could increase efficiency," he says. "One of the most failed examples of this was Stalin."
Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953, did not only fiddle with clocks but also with calendars—the infamous leader tried to create a five day week so workers wouldn't have weekends anymore. Downing says that Stalin hopped on the daylight savings bandwagon early, and one April had the entire Soviet Union turn their clocks ahead.
"Unfortunately—I'm not making this up—in the fall he forgot to tell the Soviet Union to turn back their clocks," says Downing. "Through World War II and the entire Cold War all of the clocks in Russia were off by an hour and it was not noted until the 1980s. Fiddling with the clocks can have its price."
Downing says that in a way the United States is following in Britain's footsteps—a nation that has embraced daylight saving time from the very beginning.
"The Brits really fell in love with daylight saving because they just don't have enough sunlight any time of the year," says Downing. "It was a golfer and a horseman who first noticed Brits sleeping through those early morning sunrise times, putting their curtains up and blocking a natural resource. So he had the idea of forcing people out of their house at the end of the day by turning the clocks forward."
While the reasons for daylight saving time may fall to myth, Downing says that at the end of the day the practice really does work.
"Americans really do leave their houses when there's more sunlight after work," he says. "But here's the problem: We're told we're saving energy, but when Americans go outside and go to the park and go to the mall, we don't walk—we get in our cars and drive. So for the past 100 years, the dirty secret is daylight saving increases gasoline consumption."
This weekend might be tough with one less hour of sleep, and though daylight savings time may be an annoying sign that spring is right around the corner, The Takeaway also wants to hear about your favorite hopeful signs of spring. Let us know what signs of spring you're seeing by tweeting us with the hashtag #MySpringSign, or by leaving us a comment on Facebook.