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The century-old fight over an hour of daylight

Cows are affected by the time change: they produce less milk Keystone

Whether to "spring forward“ or "fall back“, people in Switzerland – and many other parts of the world – either rejoice or despair in the twice-yearly time change. A look into the history books shows it’s been a hotly debated political issue for 100 years. 

In early 1916, the countries surrounding Switzerland – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and France – adopted Daylight Saving Time and moved their clocks an hour ahead in the summer months. But Switzerland didn’t.

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Consultation procedure

The Swiss government didn’t want to rock the boat, so it chose not to adopt Daylight Saving Time in 1916 in order to properly analyse the situation. Following a consultation procedure and a lengthy debate, cabinet definitively decided against it in March 1917.

Wartime energy savings – but not in Switzerland                                          

Switzerland’s neighbours adopted Daylight Saving Time in order to save energy during wartime, since coal grew scarce after the outbreak of the First World War. But in Switzerland, neither the interior ministry nor the cabinet saw potential for the same energy savings, since most electricity was produced with hydro power. What’s more, lawmakers feared that adopting Daylight Savings Time would hurt the home-grown water power sector.

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Don’t confuse the cows!

Another argument against Daylight Saving Time came from farmers, who said it was difficult to adjust cows‘ milking schedules to a new rhythm twice per year. No one wanted confused cows, and the time change also presented challenges to the schedules of agricultural workers and schoolchildren, the government ruled.

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Those summer nights

Today people appreciate the long Swiss summer nights, ideal for playing sports or enjoying one more drink with friends. A century ago, those who wanted Daylight Saving Time also used the advantage of long summer evenings to advance their arguments, but they took a different angle: with more daylight, they claimed “people would still have enough time to cultivate their vegetable plots after the end of the workday”. That way, they could “contribute to increased domestic agricultural production”. Opponents of Daylight Saving Time argued that a longer day could have negative health effects on the population.

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Two-year Swiss experiment

The issue of the summer time was temporarily put on hold for more than two decades. But in 1941 and 1942 – during the Second World War – the government made a new attempt citing potential energy savings. It proved to be a failure and the government suspended the trial in 1943, saying the savings were too limited and using the same explanation as decades previously.

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Does money rule time?

Many countries did away with Daylight Saving Time after the Second World War. Only Italy maintained the policy for three decades until it dropped summer time in the early 1970s. 

But later, the tide seemed to change. France introduced Daylight Saving Time in 1976, Germany and Austria followed suit in 1980. In a 1978 referendum, the Swiss people refused to change the hour. However, it was imposed by the Federal Council in 1981 in order to align Switzerland with neighboring countries. The government said a common policy on the issue could facilitate the functioning of a European single market.

Failed initiative

Daylight Saving Time has remained a topic of political controversy ever since. In 1982, the canton Zurich branch of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, led by Christoph Blocher who later became a leading political figure in Switzerland, started collecting signatures for an initiative to end the time change but failed to gather the necessary signatures. A current motion by People’s Party parliamentarian Yvette Estermann that calls for doing away with the time change has yet to be dealt with.

When does the time actually change?

In Switzerland, clocks spring forward by one hour at 2am on the last Sunday in March and they return to standard time again at 2am on the last Sunday in October.



Daylight saving

This content was published on Dr Johannes Mathis of Bern talks to about the downside to shifting the clocks forward in the summer.

Read more: Daylight saving
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Translated from German by Veronica DeVore and Urs Geiser

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR