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A brief history of daylight saving time

The “spring forward, fall back” system of daylight saving time has been practiced for more than a century, but the general idea dates back to Benjamin Franklin.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

On Tuesday, the US Senate passed the Sunshine Protection Act, a step toward ending a timekeeping tradition that originated in 1918.

The legislation would make daylight saving time permanent, creating a “new, standard time” by sticking with the hours observed from March to November.

The “spring forward, fall back” system has been practiced for more than a century, but the general idea dates back to Benjamin Franklin.

In 1784, Franklin wrote a letter to the Journal of Paris about his “surprise” at seeing the sun shining at 6 a.m., and explored the idea of changing sleep schedules to accommodate the daylight. He argued that the expense of candlelight could be saved if more activities were done in the daytime year-round.

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Nothing came of the letter, and many assumed it was a tongue-in-cheek joke by Franklin, since there was little mention of it until Englishman William Willett campaigned for the idea in 1907.

In 1909, the British House of Commons rejected the idea. But during World War I, it was adopted by several countries, including Australia, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. In the United States, the Standard Time Act, also known as the Calder Act, was passed in 1918 to conserve fuel by extending the amount of evening light. The law was repealed after seven months, but the practice became widespread.

In World War II, the hourly shift was reinstated by President Franklin Roosevelt, who called it “War Time.” It officially ran from February 1942 through September 1945, and after its repeal individual states again imposed their own policies.

In 1966, Congress enacted the Uniform Time Act, which gave guidelines for daylight saving time to be followed nationally, although states could choose to remain exempt.

Before then, daylight saving time was far from universal, forcing people to change the time on their watches on trips and even commutes, David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of daylight saving time, wrote in a National Geographic article.

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In his book, Prerau noted that in the early 1960s, passengers on a 35-mile bus trip from Steubenville, Ohio, to Moundsville, W.Va., passed through seven time changes.

During the 1973 oil embargo, Congress made daylight saving time permanent to cut back on oil usage. After a public outcry over an increase in pre-dawn crashes, the practice ended in April 1975.

But the debate has raged on.


Grace Gilson can be reached at grace.gilson@globe.com.