Columbia and Daylight Saving Time: You’re Welcome

This weekend, the clocks turn back to Standard Time, marking the end of Daylight Saving Time. As you enjoy an extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning, know that you have Columbia to thank for that.

Rutherfurd Professor of Astronomy John K. Rees. Scan #4751. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Before 1883, each city, town or village in the US operated on local or solar time. With the expansion of the interstate train network, train timetables and different “local” times became a problem. In 1874, the Standard Time Committee of the American Metrological Society, led by the Society’s (and Columbia’s) President F.A.P. Barnard, took up the issue of using a system of “hour standards” based on the Greenwich meridian or as we now know them, time zones. Some members of the Society favored a single standard for the whole country: either set by the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC or through the middle of the country, about 50 seconds east of St. Louis. Inspired by the Report on Standard Time (1879), William F. Allen, editor of the Traveler’s Official Railway Guide, joined the Society and helped to bring together the Society’s academic interests and railroad industry’s needs. Based on the 15-degree time belts developed by Charles F. Dowd, Allen drew the maps with the new divisions or time zones, and he was charged with persuading the railroad companies to join the movement. US and Canadian railway systems adopted Standard Time at noon on November 18, 1883.

Columbia astronomy professor and the secretary of the American Metrological Society, John K. Rees worked with New York City Mayor Franklin Edson to draft the local Standard Time proposition, which was favorably received by City Hall. On November 18, the bells of St. Paul’s rang at 12 noon of the old, local time and, four minutes later, Trinity Church bells rang twelve times marking the beginning of Standard Time in New York. Similarly, it was Rees’s counterpart at Harvard, Edward C. Pickering, who persuaded the Boston city government to make a change of 16 minutes to their local time. With New York and Boston on board, many other cities soon adopted the new hour standards along with the railroads.

While the United States was the leading nation in the Standard Time movement, Europe was first in adopting Daylight Saving (see below, pamphlet from the failed 1907 campaign in the British Parliament). Germany was the first to bring the new plan into effect in the Spring 1916, followed by Britain and France, in an effort to conserve fuel during WWI. Columbia astronomy professor Harold Jacoby argued for the US to adopt the plan: people would begin their waking and working day an hour earlier in the summer than they do in the winter. Why sleep through an hour of daylight, when you can enjoy an additional sunny hour in the afternoon? Jacoby had served as Rees’s assistant during the adoption of Standard Time. Based on that experience, the Daylight Saving proposal had the clocks change on Sunday nights, when few trains were in motion, and thus the train timetables could remain practically untouched. As part of the Standard Time Act of 1918, the time zones became federal law and Daylight Saving Time (DST) started on March 31, 1918.*

The Waste of Daylight pamphlet from the 1907 British campaign to start Daylight Saving Time. Department of Astronomy records, Box 3, Folder 7, University Archives.
  • Rees, J.K. “Standard Time.” School of Mines Quarterly, Vol. 5 1883-1884, 136-139.
  • Jacoby, Harold. “Daylight Saving.” Columbia Alumni News, Vol 8. No. 13, December 22, 1916, 295-296.
  • Jacoby, Harold. “Columbia and Daylight Saving.” Columbia Alumni News, Vol. 10 No. 4, November 1, 1918, 157-158.

*DST was soon repealed in 1919, although New York City kept it. With several fits and starts, it was not until 1966 that the Uniform Time Act brought DST back nationwide (even though states could still exempt themselves if they did so statewide.)