So the clocks went forward, and summer is upon us – specifically, British Summer Time – and we’re all very pleasantly dazed and confused. We got an hour less in bed yesterday (assuming we wake by the clock on a Sunday) but a long summer-type evening in compensation.

Photo: Christine Matthews

Photo: Christine Matthews

British Summer Time, or Daylight Saving Time as it is more universally known, is used in something like 70 countries as a means of maximising productive daylight. It was first conceived of, apparently, by Benjamin Franklin in 1784, and made it to Britain in 1916, enacted in the Summertime Act as a wartime measure.

There have been various experiments with it over the years – between 1968 and 1971 British Summer Time was retained through the winter, but no one (not least the Scots) could stand the bleakness of the dark mornings. During the Second World War Britain ran on Double Time, advancing to Continental Standard Time (+1 hour) and Daylight correction (+2 hours) in the summer.

The original proponent of BST, William Willet, wanted the clocks to change not by an hour but by 80 minutes, and not overnight but over four weeks, in twenty minute increments. He reasoned that the gradual adjustment would not be noticed, in the same way that people travelling by ship to America had no difficulty adjusting to time zones (there is no such thing as ‘ship-lag’.

We should be grateful that that detail of the measure was not introduced. However, Willet was correct in noticing that humans are oddly sensitised to the tick of a clock – anyone who has tried to train themselves to guess the time will know how spookily accurate our internal chronometer can be.

Pity, then, the submariner. I was told once by a student, an Italian navel officer who had spent time as a guest on a French submarine, that once they have submerged the clocks on submarines speed up by 25%, so that an hour by the clock passes in 45 minutes. The day lasts 18 hours, divided into three 6-hour shifts. No one is allowed a personal chronometer. Just as, when you drive long distances in kilometres you seem to travel faster than when you travel in miles, the submariners day is made to tick along at a good pace. Just as well, since tours of underwater duty regularly reach 90 (or is that 120) days without surfacing.

Perhaps that would be the answer for our winter clocks, not to mention English lessons – the winter evenings would pass in a trice if we worked to a rhythm of more and shorter hours.


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