History of Standard Time in the US

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Standard time in time zones was instituted in the U.S. and Canada by the railroads on 18 November 1883. Before then, time of day was a local matter, and most cities and towns used some form of local solar time, maintained by some well-known clock (for example, on a church steeple or in a jeweler’s window). The new standard time system was not immediately embraced by all, however.

Use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communication and travel. Standard time in time zones was not established in U.S. law until the Act of March 19, 1918, sometimes called the Standard Time Act. The act also established daylight saving time, itself a contentious idea. Daylight saving time was repealed in 1919, but standard time in time zones remained in law, with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) having the authority over time zone boundaries. Daylight time became a local matter. It was re-established nationally early in World War II, and was continuously observed until the end of the war. After the war its use varied among states and localities. The Uniform Time Act of 1966 provided standardization in the dates of beginning and end of daylight time in the U.S. but allowed for local exemptions from its observance. The act also continued the authority of the ICC over time zone boundaries. In subsequent years, Congress transferred the authority over time zones to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), modified (several times) the beginning date of daylight time, and renamed the three westernmost time zones.

Time zone boundaries have changed greatly since their original introduction and changes still occasionally occur. DOT issues press releases when these changes are made. Generally, time zone boundaries have tended to shift westward. Places on the eastern edge of a time zone can effectively move sunset an hour later (by the clock) by shifting to the time zone immediately to their east. If they do so, the boundary of that zone is locally shifted to the west; the accumulation of such changes results in the long-term westward trend. The process is not inexorable, however, since the late sunrises experienced by such places during the winter may be regarded as too undesirable. Furthermore, under the law, the principal standard for deciding on a time zone change is the “convenience of commerce.” Proposed time zone changes have been both approved and rejected based on this criterion, although most such proposals have been accepted.

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