It’s about time …

Did you know … 

  • In Great Britain in 1752, Wednesday 2nd September was followed by Thursday 14th September. 
  • In Scotland, 1599 had only nine months. 
  • There have been 25 million minutes since 1972; 27 of them have had 61 seconds rather than the normal 60. 

Time feels weird at the moment, during lockdown. Routines are disrupted, and while some days seem to last a week, others seem to fly past. It even feels like we’ve missed some days altogether. 

In Chapter Five of The Diary of Curious Cuthbert, by me, Jack Challoner, that is exactly what happens. The hero of the story, Cuthbert, is surprised when the whole month of March is missed. (Perhaps some of us know how that feels, right now.) 

So, before reading further, why not listen to that chapter. When you’ve had a listen, perhaps you’d like to read my thoughts about time, below. 

Calendars … 

The calendar we use today in the UK (and most of the world) is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII (thirteenth). 

Until 1752, England used the Julian calendar (named after Roman Emperor Julius Caesar). The Julian calendar is not as accurate as the Gregorian one. It differs by three days every four hundred years. By 1752, it was out by eleven days. That’s why those eleven days were skipped in Britain in September 1752. No time was actually lost: the date simply jumped from 2nd to 14th. 

In both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars, the year begins on 1st January. However, in Europe in the Middle Ages, when the Julian calendar was in use, the first day of the year differed from country to country … 

In England, Scotland and Ireland, the year began on 25 March (Lady Day). Scotland changed the first day of the year to 1st January in 1600 – so that is why 1599 only had nine months (from 25 March 1599 to 31 December 1599). 

England officially changed the first day of the year to 1st January (from ‘Old Style’ to ‘New Style’) in 1752. In the seventeenth century, events that occurred in the first three months of the year are often referred to with both ‘OS’ or ’NS’ years. For example, Isaac Newton died on 20th March 1726 OS (1727 NS). 

The Gregorian and Julian calendars both consist of 365 days – although every fourth year, or leap year, has 366 days. That extra day is, of course, 29th February – although in the Julian calendar, a leap year had two 24th Februarys. 

The reason for the extra day is that a year doesn’t consist of an exact number of days – why should it? One orbit around the Sun takes just over 365.24 days. In the Julian calendar, that extra 0.24 (about one-quarter) day is made up by having one extra day every four years. 

The Gregorian calendar also has an extra day every four years. However, years that are divisible by 100 are not leap years – unless they are divisible by 400. So, the year 2000 was a leap year, but 1800 and 1900 were not. It is this difference that makes the Gregorian calendar more accurate than the Julian one. 

The Julian calendar originated in the Roman Empire. It was a great improvement on the Roman calendar used before, which had only 355 days. Every few years, they had to add an extra month. 

Extra seconds 

Even the Gregorian calendar sometimes gets out of whack. 

The purpose of time 

One other thing: in ‘The Month That Wasn’t’, 

“Cuthbert recalled that he read long before: Time has a purpose. What it is for is simply to separate things that occur, each from the others – the ‘will-be’ from ‘were’ – to stop them all happening at once.” 

That idea was borrowed from a 1921 short story by Ray Cummings, called The Time Professor: 

“And furthermore, and in the next place,” the first man went on complacently, “you ain’t got no knowledge to say it ain’t so. You don’t even know what time is. Do you, now?” 

“Huh?” said Tubby.

“I said you don’t even know what time is. Do you? Say, what’s the matter with you? Are you deaf?”

Tubby blinked up his heavy eyelids with an effort. “No, I ain’t deef. I heard you.”

“He says he heard you, Jake,” said the second man.

“I do know what time is,” Tubby declared. He paused. “Time,” he added slowly— “time is what keeps everything from happening at once. I know that—I seen it in print, too.” 

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