President Wilson signs Standard Time Act, March 19, 1918

On this day in 1918, 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Standard Time Act. The legislation established federally mandated time zones across the nation and called for daylight saving time to begin on March 31. In adopting daylight saving time, the United States followed the lead of other major combatants in World War I, beginning with Germany, which had made the time shift on May 1, 1916.

However, the idea of setting clocks forward an hour during the warmer months of the year so that evenings have more daylight and mornings have less, proved unpopular in a nation that still had a sizable agrarian population. After the armistice, Congress, acting over Wilson’s veto, scuttled the practice.

In 1883, North American railroads had switched to a standard time system that governed their timetables. Until then, each railroad had gone its own way — publishing conflicting schedules usually based on the local time of its headquarters or main terminus. Many state legislatures and municipalities adopted the four major zones — each one-hour wide — thereby forestalling federal action conforming to continent-wide time standards for the next 35 years.

On Feb. 9, 1942, with the nation engaged in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed a year-round daylight saving time, calling it “war time.” That practice ended on the last Sunday in September 1945.

The following summer, however, many states and localities reverted to daylight saving time, individually choosing when it should begin and end. (In May 1965, for two weeks, the adjacent twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, were on different times, when the capital city decided to join most of the nation by starting daylight saving time while Minneapolis opted to follow a later date, as set by then state law.)

The resulting nationwide confusion led in 1966 to passage of the Uniform Time Act. Initially, it provided for clocks to be advanced one hour beginning at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday in April and turned back one hour at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday in October. States could vote to opt out from daylight saving time if the entire state did so.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently proposed the enactment of a “Sunshine Protection Act,” which would make daylight saving time permanent nationwide. Rubio acted after the Florida state Legislature voted 103-11 for a similar bill.

He said permanent daylight saving time would be better for the state’s agricultural economy since the time changes disrupt farmers’ schedules. Moreover, he argued, the change would reduce traffic accidents due to enhanced visibility and that it would increase physical fitness due to an extra hour for outdoor daytime activities.

If Congress and Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) approve, Florida would join Hawaii and Arizona (save for the Navaho regions), the two states that currently remain exempt from the Uniform Time Act.

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