A friend of ours who passed away recently, used to joke that she only ever had twenty-three birthdays, even though she was over 90-years old.
How was that possible?
Simple. She happened to be born on “Leap Day,” February 29th, the extra day that gets added to the calendar every four years. In over 90 years, she only had twenty-three “official” birthdays, and usually celebrated hers on March 1.
The odds are only 1-in-1461 that a baby will be born on February 29th. That being said, it’s surprising how many well known people made their earthly debuts on Leap Day.
Famous “leapers” include singer and talk-show host Dinah Shore, bandleader Jimmy Dorsey, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, director William Wellman, and Herman Hollerith, one of the inventors of the computer.
At least two famous people died on Leap Day, and they both happened to be lawmen made famous by hunting down notorious outlaws.
Pat Garrett, the guy who shot Billy the Kid, was himself gunned down on Leap Day, 1908. Melvin Purvis, the G-Man who brought down John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby Face Nelson, committed suicide on February 29, 1960.
Just why do we have Leap Years?
It’s because the Earth makes a complete circuit of the Sun every 365-and-a-quarter days. That extra quarter-day is why we end up having to add the full day every four years to keep things in balance.
Where things get really complicated is that a year is not exactly 365-and-a-quarter days long (that would be too simple), but about 11 minutes shorter. This might not sound like much, but it means that a day every century has to be removed from the calendar. This is done by taking away leap days during years ending with ‘00, which should be leap years.
But wait a minute! Wasn’t good old Y2K a leap year with its added day left intact? What gives?
Well, it turns out that any year that ends with ‘00 that is divisible by 400, is still left a leap year, since the calendar is off just enough to need an additional day added every four centuries. This means that the year 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 won’t be. (The next leap year that ends with ‘00 will come around in the year 2400.)
These are only temporary fixes, and future calendar makers are going to have to fiddle with things again in a couple of thousand years to keep things right in the heavens.
So why jump through all of these mathematical hoops to keep the calendar accurate?
Well, in ancient Roman days calendar makers didn’t bother so much with the messy math. The result was that Easter started showing up earlier every century and would soon be appearing in the Winter. Pope Gregory XIII didn’t like this and had a new calendar created in 1582. Most of the Western world has used the Gregorian calendar ever since.
(You’ve got to hand it to the ancients for figuring all of this out; something I couldn’t calculate with a Cray Supercomputer.)
Our leaper friend’s birthday joke is an old one. It was actually used as a major plot point in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
In the operetta, Frederic, an apprentice pirate who was born on February 29th, is not allowed to end his contract when it’s pointed out that since he was born on Leap Day, he has only celebrated five birthdays, and not 21. By law, his apprenticeship can only end on his 21st birthday … when he turns 84!