DST—An Idea Before Its Time?

Why do many people have to reset their clocks twice a year? It’s a real hassle for some when clocks have to be adjusted forward and backward. And when do you do which? In English the phrase “spring forward and fall back” reminds people when each change takes place, in the spring and the fall. How did daylight saving time (DST) come about? Who started it?

The Encyclopædia Britannica says that Benjamin Franklin first suggested the idea of saving daylight in 1784. More than a century later, an Englishman named William Willett actively campaigned for it. However, Willett died before a law was enacted in Parliament.

According to British writer Tony Francis, Willett, a master builder from Chislehurst, Kent, struck on the usefulness of a time manipulation as he was riding his horse early one summer morning in Petts Wood. During the ride he noticed many homes with their window shutters closed. ‘What a waste of daylight!’ he must have thought. He started to campaign for a bill in the British Parliament to get the clock adjusted. Simply putting all the clocks forward 80 minutes, in four increments of 20 minutes each, during the spring and summer months and then back in the autumn would have allowed people to have more daylight in the evening.

Francis reports that Willett wrote in one of his leaflets: “Light is one of the greatest gifts of the Creator to man. While daylight surrounds us, cheerfulness reigns, anxieties press less heavily and courage is bred for the struggle of life.”

King Edward VII did not wait for an act of Parliament. He declared Sandringham, his royal mansion with 19,500 acres [7,900 hectares], a daylight saving zone. He later applied the same change to the royal estates at Windsor and Balmoral.

What finally persuaded the politicians to give in and adopt DST? They wanted to conserve fuel during World War I by reducing the need for artificial light! Other countries soon took up the idea for similar reasons. Even double summer time was adopted in England during World War II. This allowed for a difference of two hours in the summer and one hour in the winter.

There is a monument in Petts Wood to William Willett, pictured at the right. It is dedicated to “the untiring advocate of ‘summer time.’” The inscription beneath the sundial says: “Horas non numero nisi aestivas,” which means, “I don’t count hours unless [they are] summer hours.”

[Picture Credit Line on page 31]

With thanks to the National Trust