BEFORE HIS DAY

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 27.10.07
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Despite the advances of modern science, a large part of the lives of human beings is still determined by sunlight. Human beings tend to take sunlight for granted and therefore underestimate its importance. The setting of the sun and the onset of darkness are still seen as the symbolic signs of the end of the working day. In most offices, across cultures, work comes to a close around the time the sun sets. This can be seen as a carry-over of the time when agriculture was man’s principal occupation, which obviously had to follow the coming and the dimming of sunlight. Yet, human beings, especially those who live in cities or are not agriculturists, do not begin their work at sunrise. This anomaly was first noticed by William Willett. While riding around Chiselhurst in Kent early in the summer mornings, Willett noted that most people were asleep while the sun was pretty advanced on its journey to the western horizon. He thought, quite rightly, that men were wasting valuable daylight time.

Willett’s suggestion was innovative. One hundred years ago, he published with his own money a booklet entitled The Waste of Daylight. He proposed that, to maximize the use of daylight, clocks should be advanced by eighty minutes in the summer. Two immediate consequences would follow. One, the days would be longer: men and women would have more time to work and play. Two, there would be a massive saving in lighting costs. Willett was a prophet born before his time. He had a select a band of supporters that included Winston Churchill, then a young member of parliament. A select committee of parliament examined the proposal but it was never made into law and no steps were taken for the implementation of the proposal. The outbreak of World War I forced the hands of politicians. In Britain, on May 17, 1916, Willett’s proposal became law, and the clocks were advanced by an hour on May 21, which was a Sunday. What was a step taken to meet wartime emergencies, remained the practice even after the war was over.

It is true that Willett did not live to see his scheme being implemented. He died in 1915, at the relatively young age of 58. But there can be no doubt that in a quiet and unobtrusive way, he had suggested a simple innovation whose impact has transformed the daily lives of human beings in many parts of the world, especially in the West. The best part of his suggestion was that it was not based on any arcane philosophy concerning the nature of time, but on simple common sense and observation. It is a pity that Willett’s contribution has not been accorded its due recognition. He was one of those who, in the words of the poet, wasted his “sweetness on the desert air’’. Before the darkness of winter descends, William Willett should be remembered with due honour.