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Prague's astronomical clock has marked time since the 15th century. Legend holds that local officials ordered the maker of this famous timepiece blinded to prevent him from duplicating his great achievement elsewhere. (Uko Jesita/iStock International)

Time for a Change

One professor's mission to revise the calendar

smithsonian.com

With clinks of champagne glasses and choruses of "Auld Lang Syne," people everywhere ushered into existence another Gregorian year on January 1, 2007. And that just annoys Richard Conn Henry.

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The Johns Hopkins University professor of physics and astronomy insists that the most widely used calendar in the world—instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582—needs to go. Come every academic year, it makes his life miserable. He has to spend a full day rearranging the dates of homework assignments and final exams on his course syllabi. Granted, he admits, that's what he's paid to do. But why should he be bothered when it really isn't necessary? "You can easily have a calendar where you do your schedule once,"he says, "and it's done forever."

Using computer programs and mathematical formulas, Henry has created a standard calendar that is identical from year to year. It is twelve months long and consists of 364 days. January 1, no matter the year, would always fall on a Sunday. So would Christmas. The same could possibly be said of your birthday. Say so long to surprises.

And what about those leap years, created because it takes 365.2422 days for the Earth to revolve around the sun? The current calendar adds an extra day every four years to account for the uneven number. Henry's calendar would offer an extra seven days every five or six years. It would be called "Newton Week," in honor of Sir Isaac Newton, and would be a paid holiday.

Besides his personal interest, Henry believes the new calendar could have a major economic impact on the world, saving an "enormous amount of money." Imagine all that productivity wasted when every year numerous organizations like sports teams, schools, and businesses have to renegotiate their schedules. And think of the ecology, too, with all those trees cut and killed to create those countless paper calendars. "All of this," he insists, "would vanish completely if my simple system were adopted."

Calendar reform is as old as time. Roman emperor Julius Caesar instituted a new calendar in 46 B.C. to replace a problematic one exploited by priests and politicians. They were adding days to the year in order to extend their own rule. A major reason for reforming the Julian calendar was to synchronize it with the seasons. In order to achieve that, Pope Gregory and his scholars removed 11 days from the month of October. Catholic countries were quick to accept the pope's 1582 decree, but Protestant countries did not, preferring their old Julian versions. It wasn't until the 18th century that Great Britain and the United States finally made the change.

In past decades, attempts to reform the Gregorian calendar have been less successful. In 1926, George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, suggested a 13-month calendar. Since 1930, the International World Calendar Association has advocated a calendar consisting of four quarters with 91 days each. In 1955, a proposal for calendar change was presented to the United Nations. It, like every other attempt, failed, and the reason why was religion: "They were adding an extra day at the end of the year," explains Henry, "and what this does is throw off the seven day religious cycle."

Henry is quick to point out that his scheme in no way interferes with the biblical commandment to remember the Sabbath day, so there are no religious objections from anybody. But he does admit to one possible problem. "The Gregorian calendar is technically good in the sense that it tracks the season very precisely. Mine does not." This would be a problem for farmers, but Henry says that it can easily be rectified. Just refer to the Gregorian calendar for planting dates. "[The calendar] would still be available, it just wouldn't be used for normal civil purposes."

And what is the biggest objection that Henry has encountered so far? "Your birthday will always fall on the same day of the week. An astonishing number of people don't like that. They like the variety."

Henry, who launched an Internet campaign to promote his common civil calendar, laments the fact that the ideal day to make the transition has come and gone. 2006 would have been the perfect year to switch over, because "January 1 was a Sunday in our regular calendar and it's always a Sunday on my suggested calendar." But all is not lost. One could technically make the change at any time.

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