Turn of the century

When does the new millennium begin — in 2000 or 2001? The public has voted with its checkbooks for the former. The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco has fielded numerous calls to reserve rooms for the evening of December 31, 1999 — and precious few for December 31, 2000. The story is the same at the Palmer House in Chicago, and at the Plaza in New York City.

Travel bookings are brisk for the tail end of 1999. Favorite destinations include the pyramids at Giza; the Taj Mahal, in India; Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater; and Machu Picchu, in Peru. Civic leaders in Nazareth are building 2,000 new hotel rooms in anticipation of the crush. Islands located a hair west of the International Date Line are vying for the honor of being the first to usher in the millennium — and for the tourist dollars that accompany it — even though it will be hurricane season. A marketing representative for the island nation of Tonga offers the following scenario: "I'd like you to imagine thousands of school children lining the shoreline, perhaps spaced no more than two meters apart, all simultaneously lighting their coconut-sheath torches on the stroke of midnight."

And yet the idea that centuries begin in years ending in 01 — not 00 — has been the consensus of historians, newspaper editors, calendarists, bureaucrats, and other arbiters of the culture for at least three centuries.
Their opinion is not dispassionately held. The Times of London wrote on December 26, 1799, "The present century will not terminate till January 1, 1801 ... We shall not pursue this question further.... It is a silly, childish discussion, and only exposes the want of brains of those who maintain a contrary opinion to that we have stated." Those afflicted with a "want of brains" included Goethe, Schiller, and Victor Hugo, all of whom made the error of coming to the defense of 1800 as the beginning of the nineteenth century, and were summarily censured by the press. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and The Nation put their editorial might behind 1901 as the first year of the twentieth century. The New York Times has endorsed 2001 for the twenty-first. I have not found a publication that has broken ranks, though Science News went astray briefly in 1986 when it stated in an obituary that Admiral Hyman Rickover, whose birth date was January 27, 1900, had been born in the first year of the century. The magazine quickly ran a letter to the editor pointing out its mistake.

Religion and the number question

The United States has no official calendar, and no legally prescribed method for numbering years. In general, though, we use the Gregorian calendar, established by an act of Parliament in 1751 as the official calendar of England. This act also bound the American colonies to the Gregorian, but that obligation was canceled by the Revolutionary War. In the United States we have the inalienable right to number our days and years as we please. One could run a company, for example, according to the Mayan 584-day Venerean calendar (based on Venus years) without fear of prosecution, though not without practical difficulties. Or one could choose from among the forty or so extant calendars worldwide.

Despite this calendrical freedom at least two federal agencies, for reasons best known to themselves, have taken a stand on the beginning of the next millennium. Both the National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the Bureau of Standards) and the Library of Congress have declared 2001 to be the first year of the twenty-first century. Ruth S. Freitag, of the library's science and technology division, has compiled a 232-source bibliography on the topic, some of the sources dating back to the close of the seventeenth century. Virtually all the sources support the library's choice of 2001. The Royal Greenwich Observatory, in England, the internationally recognized authority on timekeeping and the self-proclaimed last word on calendrics, posits January 1, 2001, as the start of the new era. (Timekeeping is defined as the "measurement of fractions of a day," whereas calendrics is "the reckoning of time over extended periods," the day being the smallest calendrical unit of time.)

Every proponent of 2001 makes the same argument: Although the idea that a century begins on the 00 year may stem from an intuitive, odometric logic, it betrays the public's lack of mathematical sophistication. The first A.D. year was 1. Because there was no A.D. 0, one cannot begin the second century with A.D. 100, since that would leave only ninety-nine years in the first century. The second century must begin in 101, the third in 201, and so on. The crux of the 2000 versus 2001 debate lies in the controversial nature of the number zero.


The issue touches on history, number theory, religion, politics, and economics — all of it colored by Western chauvinism. The public (pro-2000) is seemingly overmatched by historians and newspaper editors (pro-2001). But the public has a few quiet allies: some astronomers, number theorists, a fourth-grade class in western Massachusetts, and people who count for a living. There are some mute allies as well: the sun, the moon, the stars — all the celestial bodies in the universe, which move to their own beat, caring little for the pronouncements of the Library of Congress or the editorial board of The Times of London.


In the late fifth century A.D. Pope Gelasius, about to take over a Church of Rome that was pathetically ignorant of the Greek language, imported a Scythian monk whom he knew from Constantinople to translate documents in the papal archive. The monk was Dionysius Exiguus (roughly translated, "Denny the Runt"), who chose his name out of humility rather than because of small physical stature. A few decades later, working under Pope John I, Dionysius was translating from Greek into Latin the Easter tables drawn up by Saint Theophilus, of the Church of Alexandria, and his successor Saint Cyril. Easter is Christendom's most important movable feast, and its date is one of the most difficult to calculate. Dionysius was using the Alexandrian method to calculate his own Easter tables when the thought struck him that he was living in the 525th year since the birth of Christ. The monk saw the opportunity to dispense with the old numbering system — Anno Diocletiani, in which years were counted from the beginning of the reign of that Roman Emperor. Diocletian was an infamous persecutor of Christians, and Dionysius did not want to memorialize him further. He began his new era with 1 Anno Domini, which he calculated as the year of Jesus' birth, and never looked back. Dionysius didn't bother to number the years B.C., "before Christ." He gave Christianity a fresh start.

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