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A brief history of daylight savings time

Updated: Nov 9, 2018

There are, of course, two types of daylight savings clock adjustments: the good type, and the evil sort.

The good type enables you to stay in bed an hour longer than ususal; the bad type forces you out of bed an hour earlier than is right and decent. The easiest way to remember which is which is the phrase: “The clocks spring forward and fall back.” (i.e. they go forward in spring, and back in fall / autumn.)

Sadly, after your clock springs forward tonight, you’ll have to rise an hour earlier than usual this Monday. However, the trauma of this will be compensated for by the brighter evenings.

You’d think all these clock adjustments might cause confusion at airports and at sea, however pilots and sailors work on Greenwich Mean Time all year-round – or “UTC” as it’s becoming known.

The charming redbrick observatory on the banks of the Thames remains at 0 degrees longitude, but it has become slightly politically incorrect to refer to GMT as GMT. Nowadays, you are supposed to call it the duller, more sanitised and ahistorical “UTC”, the “Universal Time Constant.”

The Daily Mail – who else? – have even started a campaign against wicked foreign names for GMT and British Summer Time, and rails against attempts to move Britain to Central European Time. This 2010 campaign was introduced with the alarmist line: “Sooner than you think, we could all be living our lives on Berlin Time.” It even hosts a 1930s picture of a man changing a clock with the caption, “Forced change: The Nazis made occupied nations adopt German time.”

Peter Hitchens, leading the campaign, writes: “According to Rebecca Harris, a chirpy, enthusiastic young Tory MP … later, lighter afternoons in winter – and even later ones in summer – will make the roads safer, make old people less lonely, reduce crime, save energy and boost business.”

Hitchens must be half in love with darkness, as he blithely dismisses her arguments and those of Lighter Later, the British campaign to move the clocks forward by one hour permanently. Lighter Later argues that:

“Everybody loves the sunshine. But every year we set our clocks so that we get less of it in our lives, sleeping through the sunlit mornings while we use expensive, polluting electric lights to keep out the dark nights. Lighter Later is a campaign to brighten all of our days, by changing the clocks so we are awake when the sun is out.

“The idea is simple: we shift the clocks forward by one hour throughout the entire year. We would still put the clocks forward in spring and back in autumn, but we would have moved an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening, when more of us are awake to enjoy it.”

Even Lighter Later want to keep daylight savings time, just an hour ahead, so where did that idea come from and what’s its point?

Daylight savings time was first suggested by a New Zealander George Vernon Hudson, who in 1895 presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing a two-hour daylight-savings shift. A Liberal Member of the British Parliament Robert Pearce, introduced the first Daylight Saving Bill to the House of Commons in 1908. A select committee was set up to examine the issue, but Pearce’s bill did not become law.

In the end, the Germans were the first to introduce it: on 30 April 1916, Germany and the axis powers introduced Sommerzeit as a way to conserve coal during the Great War. Britain soon followed suit and the United States adopted it in 1918. Since then, “changing the clocks” has become a seasonal ritual across much of the world.

However, not everywhere uses daylight savings time. It would make no sense in equatorial and tropical regions as the sun there always rises and sets at much the same time of day, whatever the season. The below map shows in red those parts of the world that have never had daylight savings time; in orange those parts that no longer use it; and in blue the areas that use daylight savings time:

Blue: uses daylight savings - Red and Orange: don't

Its distribution corresponds closely enough to the higher latitude areas that need it most with their dramatic seasonal shifts in daylight amounts and sunset and sunrise times.

How daylight savings works

At 01:00 tonight, the clock jumps forward from 00:59 GMT to 02:00 BST and so tomorrow will only have 23 hours.

In autumn, at 00.59 BST on the night of the shift, the clock jumps backward from 01:59 BST to 01:00 GMT, repeating that hour, and that day has 25 hours. In autumn there are two 1ams – one in BST and, an hour later, another in GMT.

The process seems like quite a fuss, and especially when you consider that its benefits are disputed:

Advocates of daylight savings time (DST) have argued that it reduces energy use, however studies show contradictory results. The relative significance of lighting as a total proportion of energy use is also becoming smaller all the time as lighting becomes more efficient.

Most studies however do conclude that DST does help prevent road accidents: In 1995 the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated that DST brought about a reduction of 1.2 percent in accidents, including a 5 percent reduction in accidents fatal to pedestrians. DST ensures that mornings are always bright at the times when most people travel to work and children to school.

Its economic effects are limited and relatively minor, although a 1999 study estimated that DST increases the revenue of the European Union’s leisure sector by about 3%. The longer evenings it gives in summer increase peoples leisure time outdoors.

It seems that DST is here to stay. The most likely alteration to our time management would be by moving us on to Central European Time. Despite Scottish opposition, there are serious moves afoot to move Britain on to CET, including private members’ bills. A UK Parliament document says:

“Outdoor activity can be limited by the onset of dusk. A switch to CET would give an average daily gain of 55 minutes of accessible daylight hours in the evenings. Lighter evenings would give more time for gardening (the most common outdoor leisure activity) and for outdoor sports. The move is supported by a large number of sporting organisations including the FA and the England and Wales Cricket Board.”

Given that Ireland is so good at cricket nowadays, we’re likely to follow closely behind them.


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