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I am part way through writing a book on daylight saving time. Meanwhile, here’s an article on the origins of daylight saving time.

The concept of daylight saving time was born in London one summer’s morning around 1770 when Benjamin Franklin was out walking at seven o’clock. He noticed no shops open despite the sun being up three hours. He felt it odd that people burnt candles well into the evening and then slept in the morning when the sun was high in the sky, but complained of the high cost of candles.

Later Franklin was American ambassador to France. In Paris in the spring of 1784, he attended a demonstration one evening of a new oil lamp invented by his friends and debated with them at length whether it was more efficient than candles. He got home after three o’clock in the morning and went to bed. Franklin awoke at six to broad daylight as his servant had forgotten to close the shutters the previous evening. He realised that Paris could make great savings in candles if people got out of bed sooner and made better use of daylight, especially in the warmer months when it got light so early.

As a result, he wrote an article, “An economical project for diminishing the cost of light”, for the newspaper Journal de Paris. In it, he calculated the savings in candles and money Parisians would make if they went to bed earlier and got up earlier. But it was largely a whimsical article. Franklin himself, at that stage of his life, was well known for playing chess with friends, spies, and fellow statesmen almost nightly to nearly dawn.

Franklin never suggested that clocks be put forward and never used the term “daylight saving time”. Local time was the only time used in those days. When the sun was at its highest, that was 12 noon. Each city and town was on a different time. There was no standard time, let alone daylight saving time.

Pressure to standardise time came mainly from the railways. By the mid nineteenth century, railways were spreading across many countries and needed to keep to timetables if people were to catch their train and if terrible accidents were to be avoided. In the end, the railway companies simply implemented “railway time”, whether the authorities and the general population wanted it or not. This started in England in the 1840s and 1850s. American rail companies implemented railway time across the United States in 1883. Within days, most people, schools, courts, and local governments were using it. Over the next few decades, most countries took up standard time. Daylight saving time on a large scale now became a possibility.

New Zealander George Hudson presented two papers, in 1895 and 1898, proposing that clocks be put forward two hours in the summer months. He mentioned cricket, gardening, cycling and other outdoor activities as the main benefits. There was a fair amount of interest, especially in Christchurch. It is quite likely that other people proposed the idea of daylight saving time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The champion of daylight saving time was English builder William Willett. He was always conscious of making the most of natural light in his buildings. One early summer’s morning in 1905, he was riding his horse in Petts Wood near his home at Chislehurst, Kent, south-east of London, as he often did. As a builder, he would take notice of the various houses he passed. He saw most of the blinds still shut and an idea for saving daylight occurred to him.

In his spare time over the next two years, he developed a plan to shift some of the early morning daylight to later in the day, thinking of what benefits this would bring and of any objections he was likely to encounter. He wrote and published a booklet called The Waste of Daylight in July 1907. In it, he expressed concern about the hours of morning daylight not utilised in spring and summer and the lack of daylight at the end of the working day for outdoor leisure activities. He suggested that if some of the sunlight could be transferred from the morning to the evening, the advantages of extra exercise and recreation and of the money saved on artificial lighting would accrue to all. He estimated net annual savings to Great Britain and Ireland of 2.5 million pounds, a mighty sum in those days.

Willett campaigned vigorously, believing his idea was sure to be a success, constantly updating his booklet with details of new supporters and more advantages of the scheme. Printing, distribution, travelling and lobbying cost him thousands of pounds. His idea met with plenty of support, including in the British parliament, but also with a lot of opposition, especially from farmers, while the press ridiculed it. Successive bills were introduced into parliament over several years but each was ultimately rejected. Willett pursued, and in 1914 published the nineteenth edition of his booklet. World War I brought additional pressure to introduce daylight saving time but, sadly, Willett died of influenza in 1915, before his dream was realised.

While the British kept heatedly debating daylight saving time in parliament, Germany quietly introduced it on 30 April 1916 to conserve energy for the war effort. Several other European countries also introduced it on that day due to their trade connections with Germany, including Austria-Hungary, Netherlands, and Belgium. Others to take it up were Denmark, Luxembourg, and Sweden on 14 May, Norway on 22 May, Italy and Switzerland on 3 June, France on 14 June, Portugal on 17 June and, at last, the United Kingdom on 21 May.

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