Daylight Saving: The Man Who Turned Back Time

They say time waits for no man, and that’s true – unless your name happens to be William Willett. It was because of Willett that I and my wife found ourselves sitting in an empty cinema staring at a blank screen one Sunday afternoon, wondering when the film was going to start. And it was because of Willett that I was once far too early for an appointment I had rushed to attend.

I don’t think I’m the only person to have experienced frustrating episodes in my life due to Willett, there are millions of people around the world who would probably have had similar experiences.

Without him, there would be no handy little memory aids like ‘spring forward and fall back’ . . . or is that ‘spring back and fall forward’? You see, a little over a hundred years ago, it was Willett who came up with the idea of Daylight Saving Time. It’s fair to say then that William Willett has made his mark on the world.

However, it is Benjamin Franklin that we must blame/credit for the debate which unfolded about the nature of time. In 1784, Franklin wrote to a Paris newspaper suggesting rising earlier as a way to save money on the purchase of candles.

The concept of daylight saving was first seriously suggested by New Zealander George Hudson, whose shift-work job led him to appreciate after-hours daylight. In 1895, he presented a paper to the Wellington Philosophical Society proposing a two-hour daylight-saving shift and followed that up with another paper in 1898.

Waste-of-Daylight-19-coverWilliam Willett,  from Surrey, in England, was a builder of quality homes who became somewhat obsessed with daylight. He took up the subject in 1907 when he published a pamphlet, The Waste of Daylight, in which he praised the lightness of day: ‘Light is one foot 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.’

Willett’s points were hard to disagree with. His initial suggestion at daylight saving was to reduce the length of four consecutive Sundays in April by 20 minutes each, thereby moving the clocks forward by 80 minutes for the summer months so that workers could have extra light to enjoy the summer evenings.

The idea would also help the economy, he argued, by saving the Exchequer £2.5 million a year due to the need to consume less fuel to provide less artificial light.

The notion of subtracting or adding minutes to our lives is radical and shows an expansive mind, unrestricted by social convention. Willett deserves great credit for thinking outside the box – and the fabric of time for that matter, but it would be years before his plan would come to fruition.

William Willett

But let’s not think his was a lone voice in the time debate. The idea to save daylight was being picked up elsewhere, and on July 1, 1908, the town of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) in the Canadian province of Ontario, took the bull by the horns – or the clock by the hands – and turned their timepieces forward one hour to start the world’s first introduction of daylight saving time. Other parts of Canada soon followed, with Regina in Saskatchewan taking up DST in April 1914, and the cities of Winnipeg and Brandon, in Manitoba, doing so in April 1916.

But back to Willet… One avid supporter of his cause was British politician Robert Pearce, who, in 1908, introduced a Daylight Savings bill to the House of Commons. It passed its first and second readings but failed to get through other legislative stages. The bill would float around in several guises until it was finally passed in May of 1916.

By March 1914, Willett was advocating a single jump in summer time of one hour as opposed to four tranches of 20 minutes over a month. He claimed to have the support of a large number of MPs in the House of Commons. Even Winston Churchill extolled the virtues of daylight saving, claiming that it would benefit the ‘physical, mental, moral and financial welfare’ of citizens.

There was opposition to the idea, though. The argument being that for millennia mankind used the sun to tell the time, and if it was good enough for early civilisations, then it was good enough for today. There was a sense that people’s basic daily routine was inextricably linked to the sun and to somehow interfere with that wouldn’t bode well.

However, the outbreak of the First World War, gave the debate fresh legs as it was felt that any measure that would save the Exchequer money during the costly war, should be adopted. Germany is credited with being the first entire country to introduce Daylight Saving in 1916, and Britain followed suit in May of that year. Unfortunately, Willett died the year before his idea came to fruition. He was 58.

The initial burst of enthusiasm for DST was shortlived, with Germany and Austria soon growing weary of the practice.  Paris kept with time change but other parts of France dropped the idea, while Britain and Ireland would continue to set their clocks back and forward.

It’s one hundred and one years since Willet’s idea was voted into existence, it is still being used, albeit with a few changes of heart in between as it fell out of fashion down through the years.

It was the oil crisis of 1973 that reinvigorated interest in the notion of time change. When Opec – the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries – imposed an oil embargo, energy prices shot through the roof, leading to recession across Europe.  France was the first mainland European country to revive DST in 1976, and by the end of that decade, most of the continent was again changing clocks twice a year.

Remarkably, it was only as recently as 1996 that the EU standardised the schedule for daylight saving time – moving clocks forward an hour on the last Sunday of March, and turning them back again on the last Sunday of October.

I have RTE’s Century Ireland website to thank for teaching me something about the visionary thinker that was William Willett.

His idea gave us the opportunity to enjoy sunny summer evenings and to make a little more of the dark days of winter time, but, boy, it sure is irritating when you forget to turn that clock back.

I can see the benefits of it in Arctic regions, but in my neck of the global wood, I could live without the change. It’s hardly surprising that less than 40pc of the world’s countries actually use the system.

I’m still sore about sitting in that cinema an hour early the day after the clocks went back, so Daylight Saving Time still riles me a bit. Spring forward, fall back . . . spring back, fall forward . . . I’m sorry, life’s complicated enough for me without adding William Willett’s magic hour into the mix, no matter how well-intended.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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24 Responses to Daylight Saving: The Man Who Turned Back Time

  1. Susan Sloate says:

    Sorry, must disagree with you here. I loved this piece and enjoyed learning about Willett. And Daylight Savings Time provided me with some wonderful outdoor time on summer evenings and is still welcome here (South Carolina, USA), where we spring forward and fall back regularly. I’ve even lived through President Nixon’s weird idea to keep Daylight Savings through the winter, to conserve energy (which meant walking to the bus stop for school in the dark). I’m glad there’s no debate here about skipping DST; it’s a great way to stretch out the days and enjoy a lot more sunshine. Thanks for a great post!


  2. I’m with David on DST. When I was a shift worker, working 17 hour nightshifts (a double shift), I always seemed to pull the nightshift which ended on the day the clocks went back, thus having to work 18 hours for 17 hours’ pay, yet I never got scheduled to work the corresponding shift when the clocks went forward, which would have meant I’d go home an hour early. How I hated DST.


  3. That’s what’s technically known as a bummer, Denise


  4. David I am right with you especially when the clocks go forward. Great post as always.


  5. A wall full of them – you must have had a lot of time on your hands…


  6. Well, now I know who to blame/thank, David. Reblogging this interesting post. Thanks.


  7. Reblogged this on Jean Reinhardt and commented:
    David Lawlor explains why I’m annoyed with William Willett in the Spring but love him in the Autumn.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I always heard we changed clocks so kids didn’t have to walk to school in the dark…In the 80’s that changed in the States…Very few kids walk to school anymore! I’m all for giving up DSL! I want twilight mornings and long days!


  9. jimrada says:

    I tried to post a link to this blog on FB. It got removed for not meeting Community Standards. Go figure! I just thought it was a interesting story about how we wound up with DSL. Apparently it hurt someone’s feelings.


  10. Lindy Moone says:

    Interesting article — I didn’t know how this came about, only remember that even with the time change we were coming home from school in the dark where I grew up (St. Lawrence River Valley region of NY state).

    Now, FYI, even fewer members of the world’s population will be daylight savers this year. Turkey’s government has finally succeeded (under our state of emergency), and announced that we will no longer “fall back”. The reason? So the country stays in step with Mecca time, of course, thus making all the pious business deals of government supporters far more convenient — or at least less confusing — for their perpetrators.


  11. Well waddayaknow…Erdogan did something useful for a change


  12. jazzfeathers says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this, David. This is one of those things that we take so much for granted we never think that someone had to come up with the idea at a certain point.
    That man really thought outside the box!


  13. Thanks Sarah. Yes, it certainly takes an innovative mind to come up with such an idea.


  14. fintaann says:

    Really interesting


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