Railways and World Wars caused changes to time keeping

The times and how they were a-changing...
24 October 2023

Interview with 

Sean Lang, Anglia Ruskin University


Train Tracks


But where did the idea of daylight saving time - or DST - come from in the first place? Chris Smith caught up with the historian Sean Lang at Queens’ College, Cambridge…

Chris - We timed it perfectly, Sean. We've just heard about time as it relates to the planet and why we have day, night, and seasons and so on. But in terms of our human concept of time going way back in time, how does that begin?

Sean - In terms of day and night as the most basic element of time, that seems to go right the way back to neolithic times because obviously you see and you're working through the day. Things like the development of light and candles enable you to extend your living life as it were, into the hours of darkness, but the idea of day and night is something pretty constant until the industrial revolution. And that's when it's first seriously challenged when you can have a working day which doesn't end at dusk, which was the agricultural working day, but to have steam engines which keep going through the night so that you can have the night shift and a complete change in people's living patterns, which at first was very traumatic. This was totally new. Some people can still remember the knocker up, who would come along with a long pole in order to knock on your window to get you up for the very early shift or during the middle of the night. So the concept of day and night is fairly constant until industrialisation changes it and blurs the distinction.

Chris - So it's the industrial revolution that means we need time?

Sean - Absolutely. And this is why you get this huge expansion of clock building and putting clocks up in very prominent places. Now, the best known one around the world is Big Ben. Strictly speaking, that's the bell, but you know what I mean: the parliamentary clock tower. But why have a clock tower? Because the measurement of time was linked with power. So you have that move away from time zones within England because before the railways there were different times. Time was different in different parts of the country, and it's the railway which requires you to have exactly the same time in different parts of the country.

Chris - I actually read that the West country is half an hour different in terms of sunrise and sunset than the East of the country. And so that was the reason we would've had time zones in our country.

Sean - Absolutely, yes. Not time zones marked on the map in the way they are nowadays, but that concept that it was different. But with railways you had to have it and of course with greater speed it was all the more important which was the big Victorian obsession. This is why stations have big prominent clock towers. Towns would build up clock towers just on their own, sometimes on top of buildings, but sometimes just standalone clock towers. And even out in the empire again, clocks, efficiency, trains which ran absolutely to the minute and could be depended upon, these all gave an impression of British power, British prestige. So there was a political side to the control of time and the very public display of your control of time with a big prominent clock tower.

Chris - I always thought that clocks were valuable. They cost a lot of money. They were hard to make, people couldn't afford them. So you just put one big prominent public clock. That does align with what you're saying, but it also served a purpose.

Sean - Absolutely it did. And this would be provided by the local town council usually as a municipal thing, and the town councils also provided you with public health through provision of parks and clean air and what have you. It's all about the power, if you like, of the state. And as for clocks and watches, personal ones, as you say, they were very valuable. The first watches are pocket ones, often made of gold or silver or something like that and very valuable, often being stolen. Not until the first World War do you get the wristwatch because, in the trenches, soldiers needed to know the time, you had to coordinate attacks and things like that, so they needed a reliable watch. But it was no good having it in a waistcoat pocket in your uniform, so you have it on your wrist. So it's a very practical thing which is developed and pretty much kills off the pocket watch.

Chris - Did Britain/England effectively then export time around the world? Because it dominated the world so much at the time when all this was going on?

Sean - There is a sense in which that's true because of the sheer extent of the empire. Now obviously other Europeans were also developing, America's developing clocks and watches and what have you. But for much of the empire, the concept of Western time, and it is Western time based on the Greenwich Meridian, it is part of the image, if you like, of British prestige. India, for example, there's a very different concept of time. And essentially Indians had to fit in with the Western, the British concept of time, dates, years, how old you are and all the rest of it for the purposes of classification.

Chris - When did we start fiddling around with daylight saving then, and why was that introduced?

Sean - Daylight saving is an idea which was put forward before the first World War. And, in fact, it was originally muted as a sort of satirical thing by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century. Daylight saving, as we know it, is a product of the First World War. There'd been some playing about with it in Canada and proposals in New Zealand, but it wasn't adopted. It's brought in as part of a way of saving energy and in particular extending the working hours in the factories, that sort of idea. And in that sense, it's part of the idea that all of society is in the war. This is total war and of course will be again in the Second World War. The Germans actually started it, and their allies, the Austrians and the Hungarians, and then the British and French fighting them again followed it as well. And it's a way of regulating people's lives. Another thing which was brought in in Britain at the same time was about opening hours for pubs, which before then could open as long as they liked, and did. So it's part of this way in which the state is, thanks to the First World War, really controlling every aspect of your life, even time itself. It's quite a powerful statement.

Chris - So DST comes in with World War I. Was it then maintained after World War I or did we retrench it after World War I and then bring it back at some point? How did that work?

Sean - It was retained and then actually in the second World War it was extended because, again, the second World War really is sort of mobilising the whole of life. And so it's sort of kept as an economic measure. There was an experiment in my childhood in 1973/4, around about then, when they did try getting rid of it and just keeping the the same hour through the year and I can well remember getting up and going to school in the dark and it wasn't much fun and there were accidents and things, so that's why the experiment wasn't repeated, though I know it's something which people always keep talking about. But yeah, so it's basically a wartime measure, which we were then left with like many things like opening hours for pubs!


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