Calendars: A fix needed?

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Calendars: A fix needed?

Ever wonder why the calendar requires us to retool a schedule every year? Ever question why your birthday will fall on a different day of the week next year? Do you grit your teeth trying to remember to insert a leap day every four years, except on the century, except you do add a leap day on the fourth century?

A calendar published The Traveler’s Insurance Company, illustrated by F. Vaux Wilson, depicts Native Americans from the history of Hartford, Conn. Rollover image to see the Hanke-Henry Perpetual Calendar.

Any rule that requires a double-exception to the exception, friend, is a rule that has overstayed its welcome.

Our calendar must account for the fact that Earth rotates 365.2422 times during one full orbit of the sun, so any calendar will require some shimming.

Two questions: How many shims are too many? And how many people would be willing to swap out the clunky calendar for a better one? Remember, no matter how smart the invention, inertia always gives an undeserved advantage to tried-and-true kludges like the QWERTY keyboard, invented to slow your typing speed.

Shims and arrows of outrageous calendar

The modern calendar dates to 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar (or more likely a lackey) built a calendar on the assumption that the year contains 365.24 days.

For a while, that was close enough, but by the 16th century, the tiny error was adding up, and the actual seasons no longer jibed with the calendar. In 1582, Pope Gregory (or was it his flunkeys?) pruned 11 days from October and produced the modern calendar.

The Gregorian calendar, sadly, still relies on that jury-rigged leap day, and it also forces any given date, whether holiday or not, to rotate around the seven days of the week like a weather vane in a tornado.

All those encumbrances bothered Richard Conn Henry, a professor of astronomy at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s disjointed, hideously inefficient and there’s no value added,” he told us.


Two keyboards with purple, blue, yellow, and orange highlights near middle of each

Image: sermoa
Hotter colors show greater key usage when the same material was typed with the QWERTY and Dvorak key arrangements. Notice the Dvorak action centers on the home row? Although Dvorak lives in all PC operating systems, virtually nobody (except your author!) has bothered to learn it. QWERTY was designed to slow users of primitive typewriters, so keys would not jam.

Hideously inefficient?

Rather than kvetch ’til the end of days, however, Henry worked with Steve H. Hanke, an economist also at Hopkins, to build the logical, “permanent” calendar seen in the rollover, above.

Henry studies an obscure type of background radiation in the universe. We mentioned that astronomers are obsessed with time, date and Earth’s position, but Henry says, “I got into this calendar as a complete sideline. Some years ago, I was putting together a schedule for my course, and I thought, ‘Why do I have to put together a schedule? I just taught the same identical course.’ The reason is the stupid calendar changes each year in a pattern that is completely irregular.”

Nor was he the only person with this problem, he realized. “Every school, team, club, everybody has to go through this. But it’s not necessary at all. We can make a simple adjustment, preserve religious sensibilities, and come up with a stable calendar.”

Calling clever calendars

The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar has 12 months: four have 31 days, and eight have 30. Each quarter of the year is 91 days long, with two 30-day months and one 31-day month. Each year starts on Sunday, meaning Christmas is also Sunday.

Every year.

If you’ve been pecking keys on your calculator, you’ve already objected: I’ve been short-changed! The year has only 364 days! Right, and to compensate, every five or six years, we get an added seven-day week.

The freebie week, while not part of a month, allows the calendar to jibe with the seasons.

Beyond simplicity, the new calendar would help the money-changers, Hanke observes. Financial institutions calculate interest on a daily basis, but months have different numbers of days, and calculations require a lot of software tweaks. “Our calendar would simplify financial calculations and eliminate what we call the ‘rip off’ factor,” explains Hanke. “To determine how much interest accrues on mortgages, bonds, forward-rate agreements, swaps and others, day counts are required. Our current calendar is full of anomalies that have led to the establishment of a wide range of conventions that attempt to simplify interest calculations.”

Can the new calendar fly? The Gregorian calendar won acceptance because the Pope backed it, Henry notes, but he’s not sure he can get papal participation this time around. But without widespread acceptance, an “improved” calendar would really make things even worse.

Kviete ?i ekploretis. Kaj anka? kviete ekamegis mi ?in. Nokti?is. ?in mi sentis ege fragile, belplena. Mi kredis ekscii iom pli pri kiu ?i estis, pri kiuj estis ?iaj timoj kaj ?iaj voloj.

Image: eliazar
Here’s a great idea that flopped: Part of a lesson in Esperanto, a simplified language invented in 1887 that, sadly, never caught on and brought international peace despite its many practical advantages.

One time fits all?

We’ve been saving the best for last. Doesn’t a stable calendar deserve a universal system of time? That’s right: one time, one date, worldwide. If it’s midnight in London (already hour zero on universal time), it’s midnight in San Francisco — where the sun is shining.

For people who do lots of traveling, or arrange international meetings, the advantages are obvious. Although this sounds awkward to The Why Files, Henry notes that, “In every single country, with zero exceptions,” airplane pilots already use coordinated universal time (UTC) rather than local time.

UTC helps fight confusion in the air, but even Henry recognizes that one-time-fits-all could be a tougher harder sell than the permanent calendar. The new calendar, he says, can stand on its own. “There are 365.2422 days in the year, there is nothing you can do about that. Our calendar must reflect that length. We have to take that magic number that nature has given us by accident and see what kind of calendar we can make.”

– David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Molly Simis, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. About the men behind the calendar, Henry and Hanke
  2. New calendar is not a new idea
  3. Calendar reform
  4. Calendar comparisons
  5. History of Esperanto
  6. 7 reasons to switch to a Dvorak
  7. History of QWERTY