The earliest recorded account of a circadian process dates from the 4th century B.C.E., when
Androsthenes, a ship captain serving under
Alexander the Great, described
diurnal leaf movements of the
 The observation of a circadian or diurnal process in humans is mentioned in
Chinese medical texts dated to around the
13th century, including the Noon and Midnight Manual and the Mnemonic Rhyme to Aid in the Selection of Acu-points According to the Diurnal Cycle, the Day of the Month and the Season of the Year.
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.
 In the early 20th century, circadian rhythms were noticed in the rhythmic feeding times of bees. Extensive experiments were done by
Ingeborg Beling, and Oskar Wahl to see whether this rhythm was due to an endogenous clock.
 The existence of circadian rhythm was independently discovered in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster in 1935 by two German zoologists, Hans Kalmus and Erwin Bünning.
In 1954, an important experiment was reported by
Colin Pittendrigh who showed that eclosion (the process of pupa turning into adult) in
D. pseudoobscura was a circadian behaviour. He demonstrated that temperature played a vital role in eclosion rhythm, the period of eclosion was delayed but not stopped when temperature was decreased.
 It was an indication that circadian rhythm was controlled by an internal biological clock.
 The term circadian was coined by
Franz Halberg in 1959.
. According to Halberg's original definition:
The term "circadian" was derived from circa (about) and dies (day); it may serve to imply that certain physiologic periods are close to 24 hours, if not exactly that length. Herein, "circadian" might be applied to all "24-hour" rhythms, whether or not their periods, individually or on the average, are different from 24 hours, longer or shorter, by a few minutes or hours.
In 1977, the International Committee on Nomenclature of the International Society for Chronobiology formally adopted the definition, which states:
Circadian: relating to biologic variations or rhythms with a frequency of 1 cycle in 24 ± 4 h; circa (about, approximately) and dies (day or 24 h). Note: term describes rhythms with an about 24-h cycle length, whether they are frequency-synchronized with (acceptable) or are desynchronized or free-running from the local environmental time scale, with periods of slightly yet consistently different from 24-h.
Ron Konopka and
Seymour Benzer identified the first clock mutant in Drosophila in 1971 and called it "
period" (per) gene, the first discovered genetic determinant of behavioral rhythmicity.
 per gene was isolated in 1984 by two teams of researchers. Konopka, Jeffrey Hall, Michael Roshbash and their team showed that per locus is the centre of the circadian rhythm, and that loss of per stops circadian activity.
 At the same time, Michael W. Young's team reported similar effects of per, and that the gene covers 7.1-kilobase (kb) interval on the X chromosome and encodes a 4.5-kb poly(A)+ RNA.
 They went on to discover the key genes and neurones in Drosophila circadian system, for which Hall, Rosbash and Young received the
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017.
Joseph Takahashi discovered the first mammalian circadian clock mutation (clockΔ19) using mice in 1994.
 However, recent studies show that deletion of clock does not lead to a behavioral phenotype (the animals still have normal circadian rhythms), which questions its importance in rhythm generation.