Clock change challenge

Cross-posted from The H Word, where this post first appeared on 27 October 2013.

Alarm clock

Spring forward; fall back. Or was that spring back and fall forward (equally possible)? And will we ever have a mnemonic that works for those of us who usually talk about autumn rather than fall? At least it’s always an hour and only twice a year, right?

It’s hard to imagine, but the person who lobbied most vigorously for the introduction of British Summer Time at the beginning of the last century actually suggested that this confusion be extended over the course of four weeks. At each end of the summer the clocks would be shifted 80 minutes, rather than an hour, in 20-minute chunks. This is what William Willett suggested in 1907 in a pamphlet that worried about The Waste of Daylight.

Imagine having to remember if we were in week 0 or 1, 4 or 5. Weeks worth of excuses for being late for that meeting or missing the train! Today, of course, things are markedly easier, since most of us have devices that update the time they display automatically, but keeping on top of that in the early 20th century would surely have been a significant challenge.

Willett’s enthusiasm for fiddling with the clocks apparently derived from a revelation that hit him when out riding early one morning in Petts Wood. It was a beautiful summer’s day but all around him were drawn curtains and closed blinds. His fellow men and women of were missing out on this joyful and healthful experience. Willett was sufficiently sure of the benefits of “early to bed and early to rise” to be convinced that it might make the whole nation “healthy, wealthy and wise”.

Thus, although people always moan about clocks changing (back to GMT) in autumn, with our evenings and afternoons plunged into increasing darkness, the idea is and was all about making the best of the available daylight in summer rather than worrying about farmers in Scotland or kids going to school on dark mornings in winter. Daylight in winter is scarce at high latitudes, and no amount of clock-fiddling will change that.

It was the additional light in summer that had the potential to improve the “health and strength of body and mind”, Willett thought. He therefore proposed:

that at 2 a.m. on each of four Sunday mornings in April, standard time shall advance 20 minutes; and on each of four Sundays in September, shall recede 20 minutes, or in other words that for eight Sundays of 24 hours each, we shall substitute four, each 20 minutes less than 24 hours, and four each 20 minutes more than 24 hours.

Easy peasy! Willetts pointed out that this adjusting of clock hands – which was, perhaps, a more familiar task in days when timepieces still had to be wound regularly – would provide an “extra” 9 hours and 20 minutes for beneficial activity each summer week. The 20-minutes-a-week-for-4-weeks idea was intended to make the switch less sudden and, therefore, less objectionable. It was, he suggested, akin to the change in time experienced, without ill effect, by those travelling east or west by ship.

He had a point: there was no “ship lag” akin to the jet lag that aeroplanes introduced. There has been research that suggests that the loss of an hour in spring can be enough to cause fatigue and increase road accidents. Perhaps gradual change would be better, so long as half our minds aren’t busy wondering which 20-minute increment we’re currently on.

There are, of course, alternative ideas. There’s so-called Single/Double Summer Time, which would put us in synch with Central European Time, and please a number of campaigners and interest groups. However, when we last tried sticking with BST in winter, in 1968-71, the even longer and deeper morning darkness proved to be a deal breaker.

We could, of course, do away with daylight savings altogether. Perhaps we could extend working hours in summer and reduce them in winter? Or simply shift business hours or starting times rather than clock time. This is what Benjamin Franklin suggested, as he joked that shutters could be taxed and candles rationed to “encourage” his fellow man to make better use of light. Church bells and cannon sounding as the Sun rose might reinforce the point:

All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity.

Rebekah Higgitt scheduled this post last night in the fond hope that she might get her additional hour in bed this morning. If you check her@beckyfh, however, you’ll more than likely find her moaning about the fact that young children don’t take the blindest bit of notice of the clock.


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