Sunday 27 October 2013

Clocks back, time forwards, a traditional confusion


Last night, UK clocks were put back an hour, thus moving time forwards, allowing citizens an “extra hour” in bed but also leading, in some commentators’ minds, to shorter winter days. A team of specialist engineers are racing across the country to change 80 mechanical clocks, of which Big Ben is the most notable, and will probably only complete the task by the middle of this coming week. A nation of less specialist citizens will slowly get round to altering the twelve or so clocks in the their households. Some times on mobile phones and television sets will change automatically, others on kitchen wall clocks and microwave cookers won’t, so as to give confusion a proper British chance of making a mess of things. This haphazard debasement of time is done twice a year, so for at least half the time, half the timepieces may be wrong. Since I cannot be bothered to look up the manual, I keep my car clock on car time, which is right half the year, but different from that shown by the up to the minute satnav. Long case clocks are another story. They tick-tock in a comfortable and reassuring manner whatever time they show.

Readers of the blog will know that time has not changed, neither has earth’s spin, so this is merely a little local confusion, borne out of that great conspiracy, a total muddle. Greenwich Mean Time was a child of the railway age, and was not adopted until 1880, a full 55 years after the Stockton and Darlington railway opened. uncoordinated local time zones conspired to kill many railway passengers. British Summer Time was born of the Great War, and has held sway since 1916 with some interruptions and alterations. It has very little purpose, but it has become a tradition, which is the sort of thing the English are good at.

The basic problem is that Northern countries are too far North. Days are too short in winter, and gloriously long in summer. Rational folk would organise things so that they could take most advantage of long summer days, and rearrange their timetables to deal with the very short winter days, maximising the light for travel to school by altering school winter time tables. There is a way to achieve this general improvement, which goes by the confusing title of Double Summer Time. This is Greenwich Mean Time plus 2 hours. Confusingly, the more precisely measured Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is the primary time standard by which the world regulates clocks and time, but for most purposes it is simply a more accurate GMT. This is probably a French conspiracy, but they are always a distraction, so no change there.

Anyway, if you put the clocks permanently to GMT+2 that works well for most countries. Why is this system not adopted? Well, it is rational, so it has that against it. Small but vocal interest groups pretend to be inconvenienced. Furthermore, to worry about large numbers of people doing stupid things is considered Un-British, the preserve of men who probably sleep in pyjamas. To my mind it speaks to a greater problem: the failure to distinguish between the things that need to be coordinated and those that don’t. Trains and planes and power stations and the like which constitute tightly-coupled systems would benefit from the clock never changing. Never ever. Everything else should make their own arrangements about time tables, and they can set their winter timetables however they please. In those instances the lack of coordination is an advantage: it helps smooth out traffic and electricity usage.

Thereby hangs the worst problem: that our need to be coordinated with each other divorces us from the passage of the sun and the moon, our ancient time keepers. Almost a year ago I posted about this in “Time’s Face” 

Looking now at the Emerald Sequoia virtual timepiece Mauna Kea I see that clock time and astronomical time are pretty well lined up, and the equation of time shows that they are about 17 minutes apart. The sun will go down shortly before 5 pm. Yesterday the notion was that it would have being doing so at almost 6 pm. Whatever our earthly calculations, the world still spins and the sun still shines. And now for the much anticipated hurricane.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!


  1. "the preserve of men who probably sleep in pyjamas": well, what else would one do in pyjamas? Blog, I suppose.

  2. Couldn't we just reach a fine British compromise that would suit the whole Kingdom? Auchtermuchty Standard Time.

  3. "The passage of the sun and the moon, our ancient time keepers". Not quite. See

    And if a day is 1, the lunar cycle is about 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes, the solar year 365 days, 5 hours and 48 minutes.

    Following the moon, our ancient time keeper, causes Ramadan to move around the year, and the lunar-solar compromise to cycle Easter and Passover backwards and forwards.

    As I'm late to rise and late to bed, I would like GMT+2, but I appreciate the fact that Scots would not like a winter dawn at 10 am.

  4. Dear Marshall, Thanks for our comment, and the wiki piece, which does not provoke me to change my statement: the sun and moon were our ancient time keepers, but the calculation of calender days required other approaches, namely astronomy.
    Now to the more contentious issue: the Scots. There is absolutely no reason for this northern clan to follow London time. It they are serious about independence they should shake off the shackles of the Saxons. They can rise and fall asleep at any time they choose. Next you will be arguing that it will disturb milking cows. Same argument, same answer. By the way, does your own diurnal rhythm arise from the rigours of potting into the small hours as you empty your kilns, or is it a natural preference?

  5. A natural preference. And I take your point about Scottish Mean Time.