Thoughts on Leap Year

Nearly every four years (I’ll let you figure out the exceptions), a day must be added to the calendar because we lose six hours a year from the discrepancy between our calendar and the time it takes the earth to complete its annual jaunt around the sun. We can thank Julius Caesar for thinking ahead and beginning the practice of “leaping” every four years.

If we didn’t add the extra day, we’d lose that one day every four years, or about twenty-four days every century. If you think that time flies now, what would it be like if we didn’t have Leap Year? Our great grandkids would be celebrating Christmas on December 1 instead of on December 25, and retailers would be decorating for it by Labor Day. (Oh, wait–they’re already doing that now!)

And if you think that having a calendar that’s off would be bad, imagine the problems that we would encounter if people’s watches and clocks were off. Meetings that never started on time would be the least of our problems. In many cases, it would become a matter of life and death.

Consider, for example, what happened in Kiptin, Ohio, on April 19, 1891, when a train engineer dropped his watch in a puddle and it stopped running for four minutes and then resumed. His train was supposed to take a siding to allow oncoming Fast Mail No. 14 to fly past going eastbound. The engineer of the west-bound accommodation train thought that he had time (about seven minutes) to make it safely onto the siding. He didn’t; he had only three minutes. Eight people were killed, including both engineers.

But something good came from that tragedy. The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway commissioned jeweler Webb C. Ball to study the problem and come up with a solution to prevent such accidents. He introduced standards for all railroad clocks and watches, and the railroad made him the Chief Inspector. Every two weeks, he and his employees checked every watch and clock used by the railroad, using the official time from the U.S. Naval Observatory, to ensure that they all met the standard. No watch or clock could vary more than thirty seconds during any two-week period. If a timepiece didn’t meet that standard, it had to be repaired or replaced. Watch manufacturers, such as Elgin and Hamilton, had to manufacture their watches’ inner workings to meet the Ball standard if they wanted them to be cased by the Webb C. Ball Watch Company so that railroad personnel could buy them. Soon, other railroads started to “get on the Ball,” jumping aboard “railroad standard time.”

Interestingly, the dramatic drop in train accidents that resulted after the introduction of Ball’s standard didn’t happen because government-mandated regulations forced the railroads to standardize their timepieces. The private railroad industry regulated itself in the interest of safety and profits! Countless lives were saved, passengers could depend on getting to their destinations on time, and the railroads made money. That–not government regulation–is the American way!

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