Daylight Saving Time History in the U.S.

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
Updated October 31, 2008
Daylight saving time in most of the United States ends this Sunday, November 2, at 2 a.m. local time—only the second year it's ending in November. Since its passage into law in 1918, the system has seen many changes, most recently with a supposedly energy-saving extension signed into law into in 2005.

(See "Daylight Saving Change: Energy Boon or Waste of Time?" [March 9, 2007].)

Contrary to popular belief, no federal rule mandates that states or territories observe daylight saving time.

Most U.S. residents set their clocks one hour forward in spring and one hour back in fall. But residents of Hawaii and most of Arizona—along with the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, among others—will do nothing. Those locales never deviate from standard time within their particular time zones.

Federal law simply stipulates areas that observe daylight saving time must switch back to standard time at 2 a.m. on the first Sunday in November.

Likewise, the rule requires that regions that observe daylight saving time begin the period at the same time on the second Sunday in March.

The Dawn of Daylight Saving Time

While the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., sets what is known as standard time in the country through its maintenance of atomic clocks, the observatory has nothing to do with daylight saving time.

Oversight of daylight saving time first resided with the Interstate Commerce Commission. In 1966 the U.S. Congress transferred that responsibility to the newly created Department of Transportation.

Congress ordered the transportation agency to "foster and promote widespread and uniform adoption and observance of the same standard of time within and throughout each such standard time zone."

So why is a transportation authority in charge of time laws? It all dates back to the heyday of railroads.

"In the early 19th century … localities set their own time," said Bill Mosley, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"It was kind of a crazy quilt of time, time zones, and time usage. When the railroads came in, that necessitated more standardization of time so that railroad schedules could be published."

In 1883 the U.S. railroad industry established official time zones with a set standard time within each zone. Congress eventually came on board, signing the railroad time zone system into law in 1918.

The only federal regulatory agency in existence at that time happened to be the Interstate Commerce Commission, so Congress granted the agency authority over time zones and any future modifications that might be necessary.

Part of the 1918 law also legislated for the observance of daylight saving time nationwide. That section of the act was repealed the following year, and daylight saving time thereafter became a matter left up to local jurisdictions.

Daylight saving time was observed nationally again during World War II but was not uniformly practiced after the war's end.

Finally, in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act, which standardized the start and end dates for daylight saving time but allowed individual states to remain on standard time if their legislatures allowed it.

A 1972 amendment extended the option not to observe daylight saving time to areas on the border of two time zones but within the same U.S. state.

Before the move by Congress in 2005 to extend daylight saving time, the most recent modification occurred in 1986, when the start date was moved from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April.

Evening Daylight

According to Mosley, the drive behind the switch is "to adjust daylight hours to when most people are awake and about."

Daylight saving time decreases the amount of daylight in the morning hours, so that more daylight is available during the evening.

Not everyone benefits from the change, Mosley conceded. Farmers and others who rise before dawn may have to operate in the dark a while longer before daybreak.

Daylight saving time, however, can bring many benefits. Mosley said research has shown that more available daylight increases energy savings while decreasing the number of traffic accidents, traffic fatalities, and incidences of crime.

Congress noted other advantages while updating legislation in 1986, including "more daylight outdoor playtime for the children and youth of our Nation, greater utilization of parks and recreation areas, expanded economic opportunity through extension of daylight hours to peak shopping hours and through extension of domestic office hours to periods of greater overlap with the European Economic Community."

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