Time it is a-changing: Calling time on turning the clocks back and forward

As we put back the clocks this weekend, could it really be for the last time?

Time it is a-changing: Calling time on turning the clocks back and forward

As we put back the clocks this weekend, could it really be for the last time? Robert Hume traces the origins of our biannual tradition.

The European Commission has recommended that member states abandon the practice of changing the clock in spring and autumn.

Since 1980 all EU countries have been required to move their clocks an hour forward on the last Sunday in March and switch back to wintertime on the last Sunday in October.

A recent survey shows that 84% of EU citizens are in favour of staying on summertime throughout the year.

Changes happen slowly, and MEP Seán Kelly reckons it won’t be until March 2021 when we alter the clocks for the last time.

Seeing the light, New Zealand post office clerk George Hudson was the first to propose ‘Daylight Saving Time’. His interest in hunting bugs after work made him aware of the value of daylight hours, and in 1895 he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society calling for a seasonal time adjustment of two hours. He was mocked for the idea.

Waste of Daylight

Kent builder William Willett was out horseriding in Petts Wood one summer morning in 1905 when he was dismayed to notice how many curtains still remained drawn. In his pamphlet, Waste of Daylight (1907), he proposed advancing clocks by 20 minutes each Sunday in April and turning them back by 20 minutes each Sunday in September.

Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, and Conan Doyle supported Willett; while at Sandringham King Edward VII was already putting clocks back 30 minutes so he could hunt for longer.

Most people thought that tinkering with the time was too radical.

It is often claimed that Daylight Saving Time began during the First World War.

William Willett: In Waste of Daylight, he proposed advancing clocks by 20 minutes each Sunday in April and turning them back by 20 minutes each Sunday in September.
William Willett: In Waste of Daylight, he proposed advancing clocks by 20 minutes each Sunday in April and turning them back by 20 minutes each Sunday in September.

A few hundred residents of Port Arthur, Ontario, introduced it earlier, on July 1, 1908. Local businessman John Hewitson successfully petitioned the town council to put forward the clocks by one hour in the summer so children and outdoor workers could enjoy an extra hour of sun. Other Canadian towns followed suit.

Great Britain and Ireland, the German Empire, and Austria began it in spring 1916 as a way of minimising the use of artificial light and saving fuel for the war effort.

Set your clock before going to bed

In Ireland, the Freeman’s Journal reminded readers how they should alter watches and clocks. Usually, this was simply a matter of turning the hands forward and back.

But with striking clocks, the hands “on no account” must be moved backwards “as injury may be done to the mechanism”.

The clock should either be stopped until it showed the correct time; or the hands slowly moved forward, taking care that all the hours, half-hours, and quarter-hours are allowed to strike fully — then adding four or five minutes for the time taken to make the change.

No need to stay up until “3 o’clock in the morning”, it reassured readers: It was possible to alter their timepieces before going to bed!

A letter from J O’Callaghan, South Mall, to the Cork Examiner on May 13, 1916, welcomed the new system: department stores would save money in lighting; and sales assistants, “cooped up in shops for long hours”, would be able to enjoy an extra hour’s daylight.

What if the magistrate lay asleep?

The prospect of advancing clocks by an hour was ridiculed at the Mallow Sessions, Co Cork, in May 1916. What would happen if the clerk arrived at the proper, “legal”, hour but the magistrate kept to the old, “illegal”, hour and lay fast asleep?

Worse, what if the plaintiff arrived one hour after his case had already been dismissed with costs?

Calling time on turning the clocks back and forward — Saving Daylight.
Calling time on turning the clocks back and forward — Saving Daylight.

Or, horror upon horror, the accused found that a police constable was waiting with handcuffs ready to take him to prison when he could easily have proved he was innocent?

In practice, when clocks were put forward for the first time in spring 1916, it did not cause much of a stir:

“The time stolen from the usual hours of slumber made no one the more tired,” said the Cork Examiner.

In September 1916 Ireland did not put the clocks back one hour, like Great Britain, but by 25 minutes, to correspond with Greenwich Mean Time. Between 1968 and 1971, Ireland again experimented with no wintertime.

A chaos of clocks

Since its introduction, some countries have gone their own way. In the US, states could opt in or out of summertime after the First World War. Time magazine (1963) said it led to “a chaos of clocks”. Although Uniform Time was adopted in 1966, Arizona, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands stayed on standard time all year round.

During the Second World War, British clocks were advanced by two hours — resulting in “double summertime”, with clocks remaining on “regular summertime” even during the winter.

Although Europe, most of North America, and some of the Middle East observe summertime, most of Africa and Asia does not.

Russia experimented with all-year summertime in 2011, but President Vladimir Putin returned the country permanently to wintertime in 2014.

Calling time on turning the clocks back and forward — Saving Daylight.
Calling time on turning the clocks back and forward — Saving Daylight.

In South America most countries in the north, near the equator, have never observed it as there is little difference between hours of light in summer and winter, while Paraguay and southern parts of Brazil do.

Australians turn their clocks forward in October and back in April to correspond with their spring and autumn — apart from Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia, where time stays put.

Confused?

BBC Radio London DJ Robbie Vincent certainly was. On his late 1970s show he had a weekly link up with the US, and announced one spring Sunday that it would be an hour later due to the clock change — but it should have been an hour earlier. By the scheduled link-up time, he found he had, of course, missed it… by two hours!

That was a one-off. But if some European countries now opt to keep the same time all year, while others continue to turn back and forward, mix-ups will always be happening.

The “chaos of clocks” might well be returning.

Time for a change?

The case for and against Daylight Saving Time:

FOR

  • It helps save artificial light.
  • It gives us longer evenings to spend outdoors in summer. This is healthy and might do something to combat our sedentary lifestyle.
  • Optional DST means mayhem. A 40-mile journey in Ohio once involved seven different time changes.
  • Studies have found that DST improves road safety by reducing pedestrian fatalities at dawn and dusk.
  • Who would say no to an extra hour’s sleep in winter?

AGAINST:

  • Today a lot of our energy is consumed by computers and TVs — which we use even in daylight.
  • Altering clocks is tedious, especially if you have one in every room.
  • It interferes with farmers’ schedules. Cows need milking every 12 hours, regardless of the time.
  • Research at the University of Colorado has shown that lack of sleep after clocks are put forward resulted in a 17% increase in car crashes. Investigators attributed it to drivers struggling to stay awake behind the wheel.
  • Early evening darkness has been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder. A study by Søren D Ostergaard (2016) reported a spike in hospital admissions for depression in Denmark immediately following the changing of the clocks in winter.

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