The earliest known account of a circadian process dates from the 4th century BC, when Androsthenes, a ship captain serving under Alexander the Great, described diurnal leaf movements of the tamarind tree

The first recorded observation of an endogenous circadian oscillation was by the French scientist Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan in 1729. He noted that 24-hour patterns in the movement of the leaves of the plant Mimosa pudica continued even when the plants were kept in constant darkness, in the first experiment to attempt to distinguish an endogenous clock from responses to daily stimuli.

In 1896, Patrick and Gilbert observed that during a prolonged period of sleep deprivation, sleepiness increases and decreases with a period of approximately 24 hours. In 1918, J.S. Szymanski showed that animals are capable of maintaining 24-hour activity patterns in the absence of external cues such as light and changes in temperature. Joseph discovered the first mammalian 'clock gene' in 1994