Daylight Saving Time: Why do we set the clocks forwards and back?
Every year in March and October, people in the Netherlands and around the world set their clocks forward and back one hour. It's been this way for so long that almost nobody questions it, but to expats who might have different experiences in their home countries, it can be the source of some confusion. So we ask, why do we change the clocks twice a year, and will this practice continue forever?
Where does Daylight Saving Time (DST) come from?
It may surprise you to know that the idea of setting the time forward and back with the fluctuations of the seasons and daylight actually has a very long history. The Romans used the flow of water to measure time, and their scales were adjusted throughout the year according to the position of the earth around the sun.
Then, after the advent of the pendulum clock and other more accurate timekeeping devices, in 1784 the polymath Benjamin Franklin proposed the idea of moving waking hours to align better with daylight hours. In a satirical letter to The Journal of Paris, he suggested people should wake up earlier in summer to save money on candles and lamp oil.
Later, in 1895, New Zealand scientist George Vernon Hudson proposed changing the clocks by two hours every spring, to give him more daylight hours to collect and examine insects. In 1907 British builder William Willett suggested implementing a clock shift to save energy. Although there was interest in all of these ideas, they were never followed through.
Canada was the first to change the clocks
Daylight Saving Time was first actually implemented in a region of Canada, when the residents of Port Arthur, Ontario, decided in 1908 to shift their clocks to make better use of the daylight hours during spring and summer. Various other regions in Canada soon followed their example, starting with Winnipeg and Brandon in 1916.
The first countries to utilise Daylight Saving Time were Germany and Austria, who both implemented the policy on April 30, 1916. This was two years into World War I, and the logic was to reduce the use of artificial lighting, to save fuel and energy for the war effort. Seeing sense in the idea, other countries across Europe began to adopt the same practice. However, they returned back to standard time after the war, with Daylight Saving Time relegated to a wartime phenomenon.
The practice was implemented again during World War II by the Germans, who spread it to many countries under Nazi occupation, including Denmark and Poland. In the Netherlands, the Germans advanced the local time by one hour and 40 minutes, changing the time in Amsterdam from “Dutch Time” to the Central European Summer Time (CEST). Again, Daylight Saving Time was used to conserve energy and fuel during wartime.
Daylight Savings Time nowadays
Although in the United States Daylight Saving Time has been implemented pretty consistently since 1918, after the Second World War many countries scrapped the practice, once again dismissing it as a wartime phenomenon. In the Netherlands, it was considered a leftover from Nazi occupation, and so was quickly abolished.
DST was then reintroduced amid another world crisis: in October 1973, the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo, causing energy prices to skyrocket. With energy savings once again high on the agenda, France was the first to revive DST in 1976. By the end of the 1970s, most of Europe was back in the habit of changing the clocks twice a year, the Netherlands included.
In 1996, the European Union standardised the Daylight Saving Time schedule across the bloc, in a directive that is still in force today, covering the whole European Economic Area (EEA) except Iceland, but including Switzerland. The directive stipulates that the clock is set forward one hour at 1am on the last Sunday of March, before being set back to standard time on the last Sunday of October.
The debate over changing the clocks
However, on March 26, 2019, after years of debate on the issue, the European Parliament voted in favour to remove Daylight Saving Time in the European Union permanently... At least in theory - since the member states were unable to agree on whether to stick to summer or winter time, this change has yet to be implemented.
Even over in the US, the issue is continuously debated. Almost every year since 2015, a proposal has appeared on the agenda to stop changing the clocks twice a year. For a decision to be made, Congress must pass a federal law allowing states to observe Daylight Saving Time year-round, but so far no such federal law has been passed.
Nowadays, less than 40 percent of countries around the world use Daylight Saving Time. Those that do are typically countries at a greater distance from the Equator, who want to make better use of daylight during seasonal fluctuations. Some countries implement it due to research that correlates fewer road accidents to more daylight during the day, while other countries avoid it due to research that shows how health may suffer from Daylight Saving Time.
In Europe, Brexit and the coronavirus crisis have both pushed the issue onto the back burner, and a final decision on the fate of clock changes is still pending - meaning we'll be setting the time forward and back for a while longer yet.