Old Rules Apply When Marking the Millennium


At a library breakfast the other morning, I met E. C. Krupp, director of Griffith Observatory, with whom I was slightly acquainted.

He said, “By the way, you’re right about when the century ends.”

I asked if he would put it in writing. He said he would be glad to, since he is as impatient as I am with those who can’t grasp it.


Now he writes: “Widespread misunderstanding of our calendar has prompted many people to conclude that the 20th Century ends on 31 December 1999 and that the 21st Century begins on 1 January 2000, but that is not so.

“As you correctly state, the 20th Century will end on 31 December 2000. It actually is easy to see why this is so. When our current system of numbering the years from the birth of Christ was devised, the first year was numbered as the year 1 AD In our present calendar, the first day of that first year would have been 1 January 1 AD. One hundred years comprise a century, and the 100th year of the first century was the year 100 AD. The last day of the first century AD was, then, 31 December 100 AD.

“In each succeeding century, the year count followed the same pattern. The hundredth year always marks the end of a century, not the beginning. The first year of the 20th Century was 1901. The last will be 2000. For that reason, the last day of the 20th Century will be 31 December 2000 AD.”

I have no hope, however, that Dr. Krupp’s simple explanation will persuade the heretics who insist otherwise. They write me incredibly obtuse letters full of illogical calculations--most based on the misapprehension that the first year of the Christian Era was the year 0.

Why do I care? Why do I keep trying? Perhaps it’s the patronizing tone of my adversaries that galls me. One concludes his second letter on that subject, “I know it is hard for you to admit you are wrong . . . but you can get it. You are a pretty smart guy most of the time. Trust me.”

Like many others, he argues that we do not begin the year 1 until the first year 0 had ended. In no historical sources can any of these misguided advocates find any reference to a year 0. The Christian Era was 1 year old at the end of its first year--the year AD 1. A child born that first day was 1 year old at the end of its first year. Both the child and the century began their 11th years on the same day. Both were 1 century old on the same day.

One reason I keep trying, I suppose, is that the common misunderstanding keeps popping up where it should be least expected. Several readers have sent me this item from Footnotes in our business section:

“Bank of America has released its ‘1990 Outlook for the United States,’ a six-page economic forecast of things to come. For those who didn’t realize it already, the report begins: ‘The year 1990 marks the beginning of a new decade.’ ”

In fact, 1990 is the end of a decade, not the beginning. It is the end of the ninth decade of the century that began in 1901. Not only is the Bank of America wrong, but so is the editor who chided the bank for supposedly being obvious.

Only last week an editorial on Margaret Thatcher said this century “has only 10 years to go.” It has 11.

Many who make this error seem otherwise intelligent. They sometimes attempt to prove their arguments with rulers, eggs, graphs and religion. They remind me of seemingly intelligent people who believe the Earth is flat.

The strange thing is that none of them seem in the least moved by the fact that every authoritative source states unequivocally that the new millennium will begin on Jan. 1, 2001.

Not long ago the science magazine Discover quoted a letter from a reader complaining about a previous article. “Come on, guys! Since when did the last century end on Dec. 31, 1900? All my calendars say it ended at midnight, Dec. 31, 1899 . . .”

Discover answers: “For (the reader’s) calculations to be correct, either the First Century began with the nonexistent year 0, or it lasted only 99 years. In fact it began with AD 1 and lasted 100 years, through Dec. 31, AD 100. Centuries end on the last day of the year ending with the numbers 00; the 21st Century will not begin until Jan. 1, 2001.

Just the other day I bought a copy of the 1990 World Almanac and Book of Facts. I looked up Century, 21st, in the index and was directed to Page 268, where I found the following entry:

“A century consists of 100 consecutive calendar years. The First Century consisted of the years 1 through 100. The 20th Century consists of the years 1901 through 2000 and will end Dec. 31, 2000. The 21st Century will begin Jan. 1, 2001.”

On a hunch I asked one of our Times librarians to look up our paper for Jan. 1, 1901, and see if it mentioned the beginning of the 20th Century.

She called back 15 minutes later. “Found it,” she said. It was a Page 1 wire story from New York. She read me the headline:

“IN A NEW CENTURY” The story began: “The welcome given to the twentieth century at the City Hall last night . . . “

But we will celebrate the end of the 1900s on Dec. 31, 1999.