Why do we turn the clocks back?

It’s that time of year again. Half of your conversations will be figuring out whether the clocks go back or forward this weekend, and the other half will be talking about which one’s the ‘good one’ and which one’s the ‘bad one’.

For the record, the clocks are going back by an hour at 02:00 on 27 October and this is widely considered the ‘good one’, as you’ll have one hour extra in bed. For parents with young children however, it's probable you won't feel the benefit.

Mother and daughter sleeping on the sofa
Make the most of the extra sleep, if you can.

But why do we change the clocks at all? Is it for a scientific reason, possibly to do with the positioning of the Sun in summer and winter?

To put it bluntly, no. The idea was first entertained because some people thought that by sleeping through daylight in the summer, the day was being wasted.

What is British Summer Time (BST)?

BST, sometimes called Daylight Saving Time (DST), is a period in summer when the clocks go forward by one hour, meaning we get up ‘earlier’ and see more sunlight. In October, the clocks go back again for the winter months.

Who first came up with the idea of changing the time?

American 100 dollar bills with Benjamin Franklin on them
Time is money, as Benjamin Franklin knew all too well.

Benjamin Franklin - an inventor, philosopher and American political heavyweight - first proposed the idea in a letter he wrote when in Paris in 1784. In it he joked that Parisians should be roused from their slumbers an hour earlier by ringing church bells and firing cannons in the street.

So, we’ve been using it since the 1700s?

Well… no. The idea didn’t actually resurface until 1895, when New Zealand scientist George Vernon Hudson proposed to his government that the clocks should go forward by two hours every summer. He wasn’t successful.

The idea really took off when a builder called William Willett (who just so happens to be the great-great-grandfather of Coldplay frontman Chris Martin) campaigned in Britain to change the clocks. It’s thought he was annoyed that his golfing would be interrupted by the sun going down, so he wanted to change the law to make sure there would be more light in the evening.

Chris Martin from Coldplay singing and playing the piano
One of Coldplay’s most recognisable songs is called ‘Clocks’. Perhaps now we know why.

So did William Willett get it through Parliament?

No, he didn’t. He campaigned for the clocks to change until he died of influenza in March 1915, but it wasn't his love of golf that persuaded Parliament. In the spring of 1916, during World War One, the German army turned the clocks forward as a way of conserving energy. Many (but not all) European governments followed suit shortly afterwards - including the UK.

What are people’s opinions on it today?

Opinions are very mixed. Some people say that changing the clocks twice a year upsets the natural rhythm of sleep, which can lead to health problems, such as an increase in the possibility of having a stroke. Also, the European Union commissioned a study in August 2018 that found 84% of people in countries which took part in daylight saving time would like it to discontinue, which has lead the EU to discuss the possibility of dropping the practice altogether. This proposal has recently been backed by MEPs and could soon become part of EU law.

However, some say that if it was stopped, darker mornings in winter would be more unsafe - for example on the school run early in the morning. Some industries such as agriculture also rely on there being lots of sunlight available for them to work in.

While there’s no clear answer just yet, one thing that we can agree on is that most of us will forget it’s coming. And we’ll probably never really remember when the clocks are going back or forward.

What are the seasons?
What is day and night?
What is analogue and digital time?