Moving the clocks

24 October 2020

Moving the clocks: how and why we started this wind up

Moving the clocks - an analogue clock
Moving the clocks

Tonight – well 2am tomorrow morning to be exact – we’ll be moving the clocks once more. A process I loathe with the white hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.

But have you ever wondered why we change the clocks?

NB:A nifty way to remember which way the clocks go and when is ‘Spring forward – fall back’.  Before you start to mutter about ‘Fall’ being an Americanism – read here.

2016 marked one-hundred years since we first changed our clocks in this manner. One –hundred years of messing about not only with physical clocks but our body clocks too.

I don’t know about you but I loathe the entire process. Every year, whichever way the clocks are going, I find it takes me ages to adjust.

When did it start and whose bright idea was it?

I’ve long laboured under the belief that all this messing about with the clocks started in WWII to give farmers longer summer days for harvesting. Not quite true it seems.

So who’s to blame?

It seems that Benjamin Franklin first came up with the idea in 1784. He proffered the suggestion that if people got up earlier, when it was lighter, it would save on candles. But it was a while before the idea made its way to the UK.

National Geographic

But as with everything in life, there’s more to the story than that. This article from National Geographic explains:

  1. In 1895, George Hudson, an entomologist from New Zealand, came up with the modern concept of daylight saving time. He proposed a two-hour time shift so he’d have more after-work hours of sunshine to go bug hunting in the summer.
  2. Then, seven years later, in 1907 the great-great-grandfather of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, one William Willett became one that we can blame/thank for introducing the concept of BST to the nation.

    Winston Churchill and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle championed his idea —but the British government rejected it.

    Willett kept arguing for the concept up until his death in 1915. A fresh air fiend and keen golfer, Willett observed that people remained asleep when the sun was up. It became his mission to stop snoozing Britons wasting valuable hours of daylight. Besides which, Mr Willett was no doubt peeved at having his putting curtailed.

    His pamphlet ‘The Waste of Daylight’ urged the nation to fling back the bed sheets earlier with his motion to change the clocks. He argued it would improve health and happiness and save the country £2.5 million. I’m sure him getting longer on the golf course was nothing to do with anything.

    A sundial, on a permanent Daylight Saving Time (DST) setting, is a fitting commemoration to Willett’s efforts. It’s in Petts Wood, near his home in Bromley, Kent.

Germany gets on on the act

A year later, on April 30th, 1916, Germany adopted his clock-changing plan and put their clocks forward at 11pm. On 21 May we followed suit with Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Turkey not far behind.

At this time of course, Britain and Germany were in the throes of WWI (1914-1918) so it was clear that anything able to ease the pressure on the economy and save fuel had to be worth a shot. A bullet free one at that.


In 1916, two years into World War I, the German government started brainstorming ways to save energy.

“They remembered Willett’s idea of moving the clock forward and thus having more daylight during working hours,” explains David Prerau, author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time. “While the British were talking about it year after year, the Germans got on with it.

It didn’t take long for England and many other countries involved in WWI to to follow suit. So too did the United States. On March 9, 1918, Congress enacted its first daylight saving law.

In those days, coal power was king, so people really did save energy (and thus contribute to the war effort) by changing their clocks.

The second world war

1940, the start of the WWII, saw British clocks staying put at the end of BST. Then, the rest of the war years saw the clocks advanced by one hour in the spring and put back an hour each autumn. This went on until July 1945. This put Britain two hours ahead of GMT and operating on British Double Summer Time (BDST).

BDST happened again in 1947. Severe fuel shortages deemed it necessary to advance the clocks by one hour twice during the spring. And they were put back by one hour on two occasions in the autumn.

But is it necessary now?

On a personal level, I’d love to stop this malarkey. It winds me up! (See what I did there?) I can’t think it benefits anyone but the electricity companies that we’re having to put lights on at 3pm in the depths of winter. I’m of the opinion it’s the worst of all worlds as we go to work in the dark and come home in the dark.

Back when I were a lass a three-year experiment ran (1968-1971) to keep BST all year round. I remember it well. It didn’t get light until about 9am but the evenings were much longer. The effects were striking. From Brake – the UK road safety charity:

‘From 1968 to 1971, the UK ran an experiment whereby we stayed on British Summer Time (GMT+1) all year round. The clocks went forward as usual in March 1968 and not put back until October 1971.

Analysis of crash data during this period showed that keeping BST during the winter months resulted in an 11% reduction in casualties in England and Wales during the hours affected by the time change. In Scotland, there was a 17% reduction in casualties. Although casualties in the morning increased slightly, the decrease in casualties in the evening more than outweighed this.

Overall, about 2,500 fewer people were killed or seriously injured during the first two winters of the experiment. The experiment coincided with the introduction of roadside breath tests and the 70mph speed limit. That might also had an impact on the casualty reduction figures.

Despite the reduction in casualties, the House of Commons blocked a continuation of BST past the trial period.

In 1989, researchers analysed casualty data from winter 1969/70, in the middle of the experimental period, and concluded that BST had resulted in 232 fewer deaths and serious injuries and 2,342 fewer overall casualties during that one winter. All that taking into account wider trends and other road safety factors like roadside breath testing.

The study concluded that BST was effective in reducing casualties, particularly among children, pedestrians, and people in central England and southern Scotland.

So why are still moving the clocks?

Good question. One that it’s possible to answer in one word: Scotland.

Alex Salmond referred to recent campaigns to ditch DST as an attempt to “plunge Scotland into morning darkness.”

Might a separate time zone for Scotland be a compromise?  SST – Scottish Summer Time anyone? #justsaying

Since all this began then, we’ve had double summer time (GMT + 2 hours) during WWII to permanent British Summer Time (GMT + 1 hour) during the late 1960s. The current system of changing the clocks at the end of March and October has been in place since 1972. Time for a change then?

Here’s something to thrill the golfing fraternity. In the 1980s, the golf industry suggested that up to $400 million (£246.6 million) in sales and fees could generate in one month of daylight saving.

And Willett would approve of that for sure.





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