Saving the day

Happy birthday, summer time


Time waits for no man, but clocks can be manipulated. On April 30th 2016 daylight-saving time will celebrate its 100th birthday, and it is still going strong.

Its debut came in the middle of the first world war when Germany and its ally, Austria-Hungary, decided to put the clocks forward by an hour during the summer to take advantage of early-morning light and save precious coal for their war effort. Britain and most of its allies followed soon after. America brought up the rear in 1918.

Once the war was over, many countries went back to standard time; “summer time” was reintroduced in the second world war, only to be dropped again by many when that ended. The oil crises of the 1970s brought it back on a more permanent basis in temperate Western countries. In places near the equator there is no advantage because the length of day and night does not vary much through the year, and most of Asia has never bothered with it.

The idea had been around for a while before it was put into action. When Benjamin Franklin was America’s envoy to France in the 1780s, he woke early one morning and was surprised to see sunlight streaming through his windows. He wrote a humorous letter to a local journal, proposing to wake Parisians at the crack of dawn to save on candles. But he did not suggest actually changing the clocks.

That plan was first put forward in the late 1890s by a New Zealander, George Hudson, who wanted longer daylight hours to pursue his hobby of hunting insects. A few years later an Englishman, William Willett, independently came up with a similar scheme for daylight-saving time in Britain. The young Winston Churchill supported it, explaining that “we borrow an hour one night in April; we pay it back with golden interest five months later.” A bill was presented to Parliament, but nothing came of it until Germany’s adoption of the idea forced Britain’s hand.

The biggest argument for summer time has always been that it saves energy and spreads its use more evenly through the day, reducing costly peak loads. David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight”, the definitive book about the subject, points out several other advantages: a reduction in accidents during the evening rush hour (which typically sees far more traffic than the commuter rush in the morning); a reduction in crime (because robbers prefer to operate in the dark, but tend not to be early risers); and an improvement in people’s quality of life as they spend more time out and about on light evenings.

Retailers and businesses involved in tourism and sport generally like summer time, as do urban workers. Farmers mostly oppose it because it gives them less time to get their produce to market every day, and their cows get grumpy about shifts in the milking schedule during the twice-yearly changeover. Parents of very young children know the feeling. But most of the rich world seems to see enough advantages in the system to keep it going and even extend it (as America has done in recent years).

One resulting annoyance, though, is that the transatlantic divide in the switching of clocks causes annual havoc with meetings schedules. A good way to celebrate daylight-saving’s centenary would be to start synchronising the switchover in 2016. Impossible? Only time will tell.

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