The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How uniform daylight saving solved America’s clock craziness

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is reflected in a clock face during her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 4, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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One of the crazier facts about life in the United States is this: For roughly two decades, nobody had any clue what time it was.

In office buildings, it could be 4 p.m. on one floor and 5 p.m. on another — an important matter for several reasons, including who punched out first to get to happy hour. People would step off airplanes with no idea how to set their watches. Ponder this head-scratcher:

That “deteriorating situation,” as historian Michael Downing put it in his book “Spring Forward,” is the reason that millions of Americans reset their clocks at 2 a.m. this past Sunday, losing an hour of sleep but gaining an hour of daylight.

On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to make daylight saving time permanent — a measure that would, if approved by the House and President Biden, end the twice-yearly clock changes for most Americans.

The U.S. Senate on March 15 passed a bill to make daylight saving time permanent all year. (Video: The Washington Post)

It would be the latest twist in a long-running attempt to adopt a standard time system for the country — a process that has been anything but smooth.

Senate votes unanimously to make daylight saving time permanent

Before 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson solved the craziness over America’s clocks two years after signing the Civil Rights Act, time was essentially anything governments or businesses wanted it to be. Although laws mandating daylight saving — to save fuel, to give shoppers extra time in the light — were passed in 1918, by the end of World War II the system had become fractured and was ultimately dismantled.

These were nutty times, Downing writes, with some localities observing daylight saving, some not:

Especially in Iowa, which had 23 different daylight saving dates. “If you wanted to get out of Iowa, you had to time your departure carefully,” Downing writes. “Motorists driving west through the 5 p.m. rush hour in Council Bluffs, Iowa, found themselves tied up in the 5 p.m. rush hour in Omaha, Nebraska, an hour later.”

The historian also offers this truly astonishing fact: “By 1963, no federal agency of commission was even attempting to keep track of timekeeping practices in the United States.”

When the government did finally get involved, a committee was, of course, established.

It was called “The Committee for Time Uniformity.”

Congressional hearings were held. Legislation was proposed. Editorials were written.

Jan. 22, 1973: The day that changed America

The measure “is a bid for the termination of chaos,” this newspaper opined. To those who would oppose such a sensible idea, The Washington Post’s editorial page said, “It is better for them to adjust to the will of the majority than to tolerate the Babel of contradictory clocks.”

The Uniform Time Act of 1966 — designed “to promote the observance of a uniform system of time throughout the United States” — was signed into law by Johnson on April 13, 1966.

Six months later, it became the law of the land, although one wonders: Did it go into effect at the very same time in New York and Chicago, which is one hour behind? Actually, never mind.

A version of this story was originally published on March 10, 2018.