"A calendar is a tool," the historian of science E.J. Bickerman once observed, "which cannot be justified by either logic or astronomy."
Duncan Steel, an English space scientist, extends that argument in Marking Time, a broad-ranging history of the Western calendar--a chronological system that is logical after a fashion, but strangely flawed all the same. Steel begins his account by considering George Washington's dual birthday, which he celebrated as falling on February 11, 1731, but Americans celebrated as February 22, 1732. Both, Steel shows, are correct, the discrepancy owing to a later calendrical reform that parts of the world have yet to catch up to (so that Russia's October Revolution, by non-Russian standards, occurred in November). Steel examines the long history of attempts to give the calendar a basis in astronomical fact, shows how the advent of the railroad brought with it the need for a system of standardized mean time, examines the likeliest dates for the birth and death of Jesus, and plucks countless fascinating oddments from the historical record. He doesn't shy away from advancing controversial ideas, one being that the meridian time of Washington, D.C. may be a more useful world standard than that of Greenwich, England--and not merely for political reasons. Neither is he afraid to use sometimes difficult mathematics to prove his points, giving his book a depth that many other popular studies of the calendar lack.
With the dawning millennium, time is much on our minds. This is a book to satisfy idle curiosity, settle dinner-table arguments, and simply enjoy. --Gregory McNamee [via]