Leap Months

Tonight we’re getting a leap second, though nobody will much notice it. Leap days are boring. But once upon a time there was a leap month …

hl-roman-calendarEngland clung to the Julian calendar until 1752, when George II finally realized it made no sense to be on a completely different time scheme than all its neighbors and trading partners (pay attention, Indiana!). Naturally they and all their colonies (including America) switched to the Gregorian calendar. But the way they did it was just short of mesmerizing.

No friend to Virgos, England decided to chop two weeks out of September to catch up to the rest of the world. So their calendar that year jumped right from September 1st to September 14th. I imagine that was a nasty shock to the tenants whose monthly rent was suddenly due two weeks after it had just been paid.

It’s just a jump to the left …

The idea of an entire country (one that spanned the globe, no less) doing this time warp together gives me a warm glow.

It gets weirder, though, because in the Julian calendar the year did not change on January 1st. No, they counted the new year as starting from the first day of spring, so the year changed on March 25th. How crazy is that?

So the day after March 24, 1751 was March 25, 1752. This makes my head hurt.

As part of the law that created the Leap Month, however, they also decided to change years like everyone else, on January 1st. This means that not only were the dates 9/2/1752 – 9/13/1752 excised from the calendar, the dates of 1/1/1752 to 3/24/1752 never existed! By the time England got to the January that they would have called 1572, they were lock-step with the (frankly, less mind-twisting) new calendar that called it 1753.

The reason all this is so amusing to me stems from a story one of my professors told about researching his doctoral paper. He had gone to London to personally sift through old letters and diaries from this time and wasted weeks trying to figure out why the post office hadn’t delivered a single letter in the month that he thought was critical to his research. It wasn’t until he returned, dejected, that his mentor explained the time switch. Thirty years later, he was still bitter about the mysteries of the Julian calendar.

betsy_rossFortunately, historians have always done the crazy math for us so we never had to learn all this in history classes. But now when you read that Betsy Ross was born on January 1st, 1752, you’ll know that’s a convenient lie.

Related sites: http://www.crowl.org/lawrence/time/britgreg.html http://www.biography.com/people/betsy-ross-9464205#synopsis

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