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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, December 27, 1999


Some notes from the
folks who did Y1K

By Burl Burlingame


WHILE some are hunkering down in their bunkers, awaiting Y2Karmageddon, others are partying like it's 1999, and the rest of us are at home quietly wondering if the microwave will stop working at midnight Friday, it might be instructive to look back, oh, say a century. Did people party like it was 1899?

Traditionally, the dawn of a new century is a time of spiritual rebirth. The year 2000, mind you, is an artificial distinction, an arbitrary milestone based on ancient Roman calendar notions.

Rumor has it that people went nuts on New Years' 999 as Y1K occurred, but there are actually no records of the sort. Although small Christian sects claimed Armageddon was nigh in 999, most of Europe yawned. Huge chunks of Europe were still non-Christian and in the illiterate agricultural communities comprising most of the world's population, only a few scholars and their royal patrons had any idea of the date.

The dominant calendar in use then was the "Julian," decreed by Caesar about 46 B.C. (not that Rome paid any attention to "B.C" and "A.D." distinctions).

The ancient Jewish calendar uses lunar months and we're in the year 4760 by that mark; the Muslim calendar (also lunar) tells us we're in the year 1420. Date-slippage problems with the solar-powered Julian calendar led to Pope Gregory XIII issuing a papal decree in the 16th century, dropping 10 days from the Julian "year." While Catholics adopted the "Gregorian" calendar immediately, Protestants ignored it for a couple of centuries. Russian Orthodox churches held out until 1923.

The world today, at least the part that programs computers, is on Gregorian time. Tying in the start of a new calendar year with the "new year" is a relatively recent phenomenon.

British and French settlers in the Americas adopted the the New Year's holiday in 1752, and a World Book article on the subject notes colonists "celebrated the new year by firing guns in the air and shouting. They also visited taverns and houses to ask for drinks." Some habits are still with us.

Which means, a century ago in 1899, New Year's had hardly been enshrined as the social leaping-off point it is today. People were interested in the New Year and the New Century, and judging by period accounts, looked forward to the expected wonders of the 1900s. If they only knew ...

An Australian newspaper reported that New Year's 1899 was "characterized by indiscriminate public kissing on the part of persons who had not been properly presented to each other." And it's been all downhill from there.

In Honolulu, newspaper readers were primarily interested in a public-health problem that eventually led to the razing of Chinatown, in the new American territorial government and in the newly formed National Guard deserting their post because of low pay.

The Evening Bulletin was a friend of the American businessman, while its competitor, the Hawaiian Star, was an ally of the Hawaiian citizen.

The new year editorial in the Bulletin inquired, "Is it the narrow-minded egotism expressive of human limitations and selfishness or an actual and steady progress toward the higher moral and intellectual ideals that causes the powerful Christian people of the world to look back on the century just closed with unfeigned satisfaction, happy in the belief that the moral and material structure mankind today offers for contemplation is more nearly perfect than has ever been presented at the close of a century since the beginning of the world?"

The Bulletin went on to postulate that "the almighty dollar" and the "Golden Rule" have led man-kind into a progressive new age exemplified by the United States. "The bonds of humanity are steadily strengthening and the nations closer to universal peace and common brotherhood," declared the Bulletin.

The Star was a bit more thoughtful: "The last year of the Nineteenth Century. How far off it seemed thirty-five or forty years ago! ... A new year raises double feelings. There is hope for the future for its wished-for hopes and successes. There is the regret for the past, filled with sweet memories, its broken hopes, its joys realized and its lost opportunities."

On the news pages, a topic of debate had a familiar ring -- whether the year 1900 was actually the last year of the 1800s or the first year of the 1900s. A papal decree from Pope Leo XIII on New Year's mass was even carefully translated to yield clues on the Church's position; it seems the pope went with the Last Year Theory.

As essayist R.H. Brotherton wrote in the Jan. 10, 1900, edition of the Hawaiian Star, "When we arrive at the year 1900 in our calendar we are only entering upon it and have to complete the year to finish 19 centuries, and we begin the 20th century with Jan. 1st, year 1901, the commencement of the year, the same as our present era began with Jan. 1, year No. 1, at the birth of Christ."

Reader Frank Auerbach insisted the next day, "This axiom no one can controvert, but I submit that the year 1899 was not complete until its end, not did the year 1900 commence until the year 1899 ended." Hard to argue with that.

But, aha! Prof. A. Koebele wrote in the Star on Jan. 19, 1899, that the year following the birth of Christ was NOT Year Zero, but Year One. "So the year 1899th year means for everybody with common sense really the year 1899 and not 1900, just as the year 99 of a man's age means his 99th year."

Elsewhere in the Pacific a century ago, the SS Warrimoo was nearing the International Date Line and Equator when Capt. John D.S. Phillips realized the opportunity to pull a fast one on passengers. He stopped the Warrimoo at midnight, at the intersection of the equator and date line.

The ship's bow was in the Southern hemisphere, the middle of summer and Jan. 1, 1900. The aft part of the ship was in the Northern Hemisphere, winter and Dec. 30, 1899. Passengers could stroll back and forth between hemispheres, seasons and centuries.

But when the ship steamed forward, they forever lost their shot at the dawning of a new century. "I guess it won't happen again until the year 2000!" Capt. Phillips crowed at the time.

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