Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 2, 2010

You Say It’s Whose Birthday?

The Counselor informed me that yesterday, March 1 was the bicentennial anniversary of Chopin’s birth. I missed it. Now I have to wait for the semiquincentennial — I’ll never make the tricentennial.

I’ve been thinking about an editorial calendar. I made a step in that direction with the guest articles about the Olympics (find them under “categories” in the right column). Editorial calendars are what separate the serious media — newspapers, magazines, The Tonight Show, etc. — from blogs. A blogger wakes up, thinks, “Oh, man. I don’t have a post for today. What will I write about?” She notices that her foot is hurting, so she writes a blog about her feet. If she’s creative and has the time, maybe she looks up a few things on the Web and writes about famous people who had foot problems, or how some notorious episode of sore feet helped determine the course of history. If she’s read her Pynchon, she comes up with the joke about people with hexagrams tattooed on their toes: they have i ching feet.

On the other hand, the editors of serious media like Only Serious Musicians Read This magazine know — maybe a year in advance — that Chopin’s 200th birthday is coming up and start planning; they assign an editor, who assigns a couple of writers, a research assistant and an art director, who in turn assigns a photographer and an artist. A year later, voila, the Chopin 200th Anniversary special edition of OSMRT is on news stands, replete from front cover to back with loads o’ stuff about Chopin, his influences, performance histories, special celebrations, scores, etc. Responsible publishers pursue this highly disciplined approach, whether their publication covers music, food, technology or automobiles.

A gazillion Web sites provide lists of famous people born on any date. For just TODAY, merely ONE Web site gives me these March 2 birthdays: Daniel Craig, Jon Bon Jovi, Laraine Newman, Karen Carpenter, Lou Reed, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jennifer Jones, Desi Arnaz, Dr. Seuss and Bedrich Smetana: and these are just the names I recognize on ONE site. I could write what I know about any of these luminaries, from how closely I resemble Daniel Craig (and am often mistaken for him), to the fact that I really do know someone who knows Bon Jovi to the place Dr. Seuss holds in my life.

Or take tomorrow, March 3. We could hit some funny note about men of science: Alexander Graham Bell, James Doohan and Doc Watson.

But, am I to go through every list like this, then examine the years of their birth to make a list of famous people in every field who are hitting 100, 150, or 400 years? Not to mention the founding of countries, universities or the debut of works of literature or famous dates in history? Sigh.

I decided that there must be someone who keeps track of this stuff, and I found out. It’s an amazing tale.

Back in 1675, Charles II of England created the Royal Observatory. This was big-time, serious science for the age. Although the Observatory’s primary mission was the mapping of the heavens and the determination of the courses of planets and such, all with an eye toward giving English mariners the best possible navigation charts, they also got other duties, including official timekeeping, and to this day we base our global clock on Greenwich Mean Time.

As Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, got to work (in America we’d’ve called him the Royal Astronomer except — doh — we don’t have Royal anythings!), he was constantly being hounded by Charles and the Parliament and various other people with claims on his attention to remind them when Easter fell that year or if it was a leap year or when was St. Crispin’s Day or the Annunciation or another of those dates dependent on mysterious intermachinations of moon, stars and calendar. He’d have to set aside his work on sidereal tables and zeniths and magnavoxes and such and go look at the list he kept tacked up by the telescope and send a footman back with the answer.

Finally, without exactly telling Charles or anyone else, he assigned one of his subordinates (he jokingly referred to them as “suborbitals”) to start compiling a list of every important date and anniversary and creating a special Calendar Royal. As so often happens in bureaucracies, the thing took on a life of its own. Flamsteed and his successors did have difficulty hiding the scope of this operation to keep the budget coming (another great joke of Flamsteed’s was calling all his expenditures a “black budget,”  because astronomers do their work at night). Eventually, there were satellite offices (yes, another 17th-Century astronomical verbal joke that caught on) at Oxford, Cambridge and in certain field offices maintained for things like observing the transit of Venus around the world, all collecting and collating these date-data and submitting them to Greenwich.

Word of this enterprise reached France, where the Academie Francaise des Sciences had started up just a couple of decades after the Royal Observatory. Not to be outdone, they determined that there must be a French effort to assure precise dating (of which they knew the English to be incapable — dating being a far more important activity in France) and the inclusion of all important French anniversaries.

Unknown to either of these august (or auguste) bodies, the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits — already had been pursuing a similar path, inclined, of course, to all religious or quasi-religious observations, building on an earlier calendar that, according to legend, had been jotted down by St. Ignatius himself of the chief days of religious observation. They had a whole wing of the Vatican dedicated to this enterprise, with armies of clerks and researchers and scribes.


According to my sources, these efforts have magnified and specialized as the centuries have passed, with entire sections devoted to birth- and death-dates of luminaries in science, music, philosophy, literature, etc. There are departments that track the founding of significant institutions, the anniversaries of great discoveries, battles (both real and fictional), so on and so forth. No one knows the full extend of these establishment or how many people they employ.

What’s a mystery is how it all ends up on the Web. The Web is a source for information, but it all comes from somewhere. How do these organizations do it? There are rumors of another, larger, all-encompassing organization that oversees and collects the data from these groups, but so far, it is veiled in mystery. Oliver Stone is checking into it.

As for where the royals get their info today, we can picture Prince Wills quickly touching an app on his wePhone (they always use the “royal we”) to determine when Easter happens. But I can just imagine the scene at Balmoral Castle. His dad, Prince Charles, namesake of that long-ago Charles II, has just come in out of the rain and asks his retainers, “I say, lackeys. Does anyone know when’s Easter this year? I’ll bet Mum is expecting us.” Quick as wink, someone puts in a call to the Royal Observatory. They’ll know.



  1. Thank you for the fun and enlightening post!


  2. The “wePhone”. That’s priceless!


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