To mark the clocks going back in the UK last week, I read Saving the Daylight, a history of the daylight saving movement. It’s an interesting read for a number of reasons – one being that social institutions which seem mundane were fiercely contested when they were introduced.

The original notion of getting people to wake earlier in winter back came from the American polymath Benjamin Franklin in 1784, and came complete with calculations of the amount of tallow that would be saved by ordinary citizens. But the movement didn’t gain any momentum until 1907 – a hundred years ago – when a British daylight activist (and how strange that phrase seems), William Willett, wrote a pamphlet, “The Waste of Daylight“, advocating the change, for reasons both of economy and public health (children and others would be able to play outside after school).

I’d expected to discover a tale of years of campaigning, but in fact Willett got lucky. Although the then Prime Minister, Asquith, opposed the measure (probably because he thought there were too many noisy losers, such as farmers), it gained support from an influential House of Commons Committee. When the Germans borrowed the plan during the Great War to increase productivity and reduce energy costs, Britain promptly followed suit – introducing it as a measure which had to be re-approved each year to save the face of opponents. (It became permanent after the War, and has been tinkered with since, but not challenged).

In the United States, it was a different story; daylight saving was more complex on a continent with multiple time zones, and although it was introduced during World War I the legislation was subsequently repealed, and state and city jurisdictions got to make their own decisions – a bit like the US response to Kyoto.

London time and local time

What do we learn from the story? Well, the whole plan was only possible because clocks had become accurate enough to be set, and it was only possible to discuss it conceptually because the railways had effectively constructed, in the UK, a single national time zone. Prior to this, Dublin Mean Time (then part of the UK) had been 25 minutes behind London because it was to the west and the sun rose later; in 1840, a timetable told passengers that

“London time is kept at all stations on the railway, which is 4 minutes earlier than Reading time, 5 1/2 minutes before Steventon time, 7 1/2 minutes before Cirencester time, 8 minutes before Chippenham time, and 14 minutes before Bridgewater time”.

The great Tom Tower clock in Oxford was fitted with two separate minute hands to show both local and London time.

Some of the opposition argued that the daylight-saving advocates were tinkering with ‘natural time’ – as if time wasn’t an artificial social construct in the first place. Some of the arguments against seem absurd in hindsight (and possibly at the time); the peer who argued that if aristocratic twins were born either side of 2am when the clocks were being put back, the second born would be recorded with an earlier time of birth, which would affect inheritance of titles.

But this is not to pretend that this is only of historic interest. A map on wikipedia suggests that only about a half of the planet uses DST, a quarter used to use it, and another quarter have never used it. Those countries that do use it are mostly richer and in the north.

The relatively persistent suggestions that the UK should shift its time in line with western Europe – which would mean that it would be double summer time in summer – would be bad for Scotland, where they would lead to dark winter mornings. With a Scottish Parliament, it’s quite possible that Scotland might choose not to follow the UK’s lead and move itself into a different time zone. Social constructs have symbolic meanings.

The picture is of a modern reconstruction of a traditional railway clock.