entry Apr 2003, edited Apr 2021, Apr
April Fool's Day
Many glaciations ago, A Neanderthal Person with a corresponding sense of humor pasted prehistory's first "Please Club Me" sign to the back of an unsuspecting fellow missing–link, whom fun–loving passers–by then bludgeoned into gristle, a process that garnered boffo yuks from the cave crowd. "Whew! That silly chap certainly was some April Fool, n'est-ce pas?", they chortled, thus naming a month and starting a glorious tradition much loved by all those who have ever found their shoes nailed to the floor.
Playing tricks on others goes way back. We get our word "jovial" from the great god Jove who was said to be quite a card up there on Olympus. To spice up the blandness of omnipotence, he once confronted Vulcan and pointed to an imaginary spot on this lesser deity's toga, bidding him behold, for, yea, the raiment was soiled with ash from the Heavenly Forge. When the Fire God looked down, the Jovial One brought his index-finger up and flicked him one right in the old schnozzola! Verily, the welkins rangeth all over the placeth with the sound of celestial guffaws and congratulatory high–fiving. Vulcan, on the other hand —a sorehead at best— erupted and destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete.
There is no evidence that any of this happened on April First, so–called "April Fools' " or "All–Fools' Day". In fact, there is no certainty why any of this takes place on April First, at all. There was the festival of Hilaria in ancient Rome (hot-footing sandals, getting locked in the vomitorium —that sort of thing) and a similar Hindu festival called Holi. Both of these took place on or close to the Autumnal Equinox. What better time to play tricks than a time of the year when Nature herself does the same? A more prosaic explanation is that when various cultures went over to calendars that moved the celebration of the New Year from the spring back to January 1, news traveled so slowly that there were still plenty of people who sent New Year's greetings and gifts at the wrong time of the year and this degenerated into the sending of mock gifts to the "fools" who didn't even know when the year started.
In Italy the April Fool is called "Pesce d'aprile" (April fish). They say there is an increase of young fish at this time of year and that young fish are easily "hooked." But I heard that on April Fool's Day, so who knows? April Fool's Day is not much of an Italian custom, much less one peculiar to Naples. There is a day for playing stupid practical jokes on people, and that is at carnevale —Mardi Gras. There is even a stupid bit of doggerel to cover it: "A Carnevale ogni scherzo vale" (At Mardi Gras, all tricks are fair). That is when someone might spray you with shaving cream or throw an egg at you. But there don't seem to be any elaborate April Fool's pranks. In some places, back in horse-and-buggy days, when April 1 fell on a Sunday, a good prank was to skip the service and stay outside and hitch horses up to the wrong carriages and then watch the fun when church let out and horses start to trot their way home on their usual paths, taking churchgoers to the wrong homes.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has traditional April Fool gags. The first one appears to be this 1957 report from the Ticino area of Switzerland, "where the mild winter and the virtual disappearance of pests like the spaghetti weevil have resulted in a bumper spaghetti crop" (image, right). Not all viewers were amused. They criticized airing the item on what is supposed to be a serious factual program. Others, however, asked where they could buy their very own spaghetti bush.
This is a YouTube video of the original broadcast.
Once the "Beeb" started their annual spoof on April 1, then, of course, people tuned in to see what it was, knowing full well that it was a put-on and expecting to be amused. So, you had reports on flying penguins or whatever. All jolly good fun. I don't know if anyone bought their 1975 "report" on Decimal Time. But they could have.
The report was on "the government's decision to begin a phased introduction of decimal time." It was very straight-laced and news-like. It was to be much like the conversion to decimal currency a few years earlier —"for a while we'll have two systems plus conversion tables." No problem. "It won't come into effect right away. You and I probably won't notice the change until 1984 - or 1985, as it'll be then." The "back-story" —which the BBC did not mention— has to do with the French Revolution and their decision to "ten-i-fy" weights and measures (whence we have kilometer, kilogram, and centigrade (aka celsius). They really did propose a 10-based time system. The image (right) is a French clockface from 1800 with the old 12-hour system as well as the new revolutionary system of metric time. Unlike the meter, decimal time never made it out of the Revolution. The new time system made absolutely no inroads anywhere, certainly not in Naples in spite of nine years of French rule under King Murat during that period. (Metric time didn't fare much better in France, either.) That's fine with me; imagine referring to the film High Noon as High Five.
The information in the last paragraph is rewritten from my page on "archaic measuring systems."
added Mar 3, 2022
Two Hairs Past a Freckle and the Big Hand is on the 8
Brave New Time - The Green Witch - Soul Music Comes to Null Island
The French Revolution wasn't kidding about this time stuff. The French Republic was the starting point of history, a break between the old and new. Everything was to be renewed. Time would start again, and that meant doing away with the old way of marking time, the 24-hour "sexagesimal" system, which goes back to ancient Babylonia. It meant starting a new revolutionary system, the "Republican" calendar, with everything based on ten. The Gregorian calendar, thus, came to an end on the 1st of Vendémiaire Year II (September 22nd 1793) the autumn equinox. Brave New Time (!) began at midnight at the true autumn equinox as given by the Paris Observatory. The new calendar was based on two principles: the Republican year should coincide with the movement of the planets, and it should measure time more accurately and more symmetrically by applying the decimal system wherever possible. It was non-religious in that no days or months were named after deities. The year was divided into twelve months, each with thirty days, the names of which were inspired by the weather and the seasons. Five extra days, the sansculottides, were added for the Republican holidays. After a four-year cycle called a franciade, a sixth sansculottide was added to the end of the year to make the Republican calendar year coincide with the sidereal year. (Good news! You don't have to know what a sidereal year is to be overjoyed that this thing never got off the drawing board!) (Or even what that other kind is called that the sidereal year is not!) (ok, the tropical year). Each month was divided according to a decimal system of three ten-day periods known as décades. The old divisions of the day into 24 hours and sexagesimal subdivisions were gone. Instead, the day, from midnight to midnight, was divided into ten hours, each hour with 100 decimal minutes of 100 seconds. And so decimal time was born, with one decimal hour being equivalent to 2 hours and 24 minutes. Noon was now at 5 o’clock. They had to overlook the fact that 12 wasn't that bad a number for those old Babylonians, who shrewdly noted that one year had approximately 12 months. (Some cultures today —Islam, for one— use both solar and lunar calendars. If your planet has more than one moon, things can get hairy. Take Mars. Please.) But in Republican France on planet Earth in the 1790s that was not a problem. Everything was 10! What could go wrong?
Clock and watchmakers had to adapt and produce new timepieces with dials and hands that showed the day of the décade, the date and the Republican month. Between 1793 and 1796, timepieces became "bilingual". To help the public get used to the new system, both systems, sexagesimal and decimal, were shown on clocks and watches. They were stupendous! The dials had concentric circles swept by a single pair of hands to show both the five 'new' hours and 12 'old' hours of half a day, and the ten hours equivalent to the 24 hours of a full day; or they showed ten hours on two circles, one for the day and one for night, and around the perimeter were the duodecimal hours shown either as I to XII or 1 to 12. They were extremely complicated to make accurately. The ones from the 1790s that survive today in museums have been carefully restored and are masterpieces (such as in the first paragraph) or you can buy new wristwatches today (image, right) but I don't know why you would want to.
The latest gimmick I know of is Internet Time, invented and marketed by the Swatch (Swiss Watch, get it?) corporation in the late 1990's. Instead of dividing the day into 24 hours and 60 minutes per hour, the Internet Time system divides the day into 1000 "beats". Each beat is 1 minute and 26.4 seconds. Thus you can say, I'll see you at (beat number such and such) and it's the same all over the world. Wait, yes, but the day still has to start somewhere! They abandoned the Greenwich Meridian (see below); the new Meridian goes through Swatch's office in Biel, in Switzerland and is called the BMT Meridian. Not revolutionary, but cute. OK, maybe not even that.
p.s. I don't know how any of this works if you can't tell time unless it's all numbers. That is, you see 16:25, but don't ask the kids in (my) class to set the minute and hour hands on a dial to match that time. Forget big-hand and little-hand. Might as well talk sun-dial or hour-glass. Great watch, though. No concentric circles or sweeping hands —just row upon of flashing numbers, one for 12 and 24 hour hexigesimal numbers; one for French Revolutionary numbers; one for Swatch beats; one for summer seasonal adjustments; and maybe one for just random numbers. I want one! You wouldn't even have to know where Greenwich is (or how it's pronounced! Remember the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz? She was green, so it works out.) It's where the International Meridian Conference was held in 1884 and where they created Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the basis for our 24-hour time zone system. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was chosen as the world’s time standard, the reference line or starting point, because the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (image, above) is easy to find. It's at 0° longitude in England! Ask around. (The line through Greenwich is the Prime Meridian of the World! - Longitude 0º. Every place on Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from that line. The line itself divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth, just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres. If you stand with one foot on the east side and the other foot on the west, you are perfectly balanced between east and west.)* UTC was officially adopted in 1967. It was adjusted several times until 1972, when leap seconds were introduced to keep UTC in line with the Earth's rotation, which is not entirely even. Of course, the Earth, itself, is slowing down like a giant spinning top, ever more slowly. Sooner or later, it will just topple over, roll to the side of the cosmic table, fall off into nothingness and die. Don't worry about that. Well, maybe worry a little bit.
* If are looking for serene balance in your life, try going to the point on the Earth’s surface where the Prime Meridian from Greenwich crosses the Equator; that is, at zero degrees latitude and zero degrees longitude (0°N, 0°E). (I know. It looks magical!) "Null Island" is the name used to refer to that point. It's not really an island. That's too bad. (I had my bags all packed). That's Null Island in the image on the right. It's in international waters in the Gulf of Guinea (in the Atlantic) off the west African coast. Right now a weather and sea observation buoy is moored there. The buoy is named "Station 13010 – Soul". It is anchored by a cable to the seabed at a depth of around 4,940 meters (16,210 ft) and is part of a set of 17 buoys installed in the tropical Atlantic Ocean since 1997 by the United States, France, and Brazil. Like the other buoys in the system, it is named after a musical genre, but I'm not sure why or if any music has been written about it or if the flippered creature sunning itself on the buoy (the last time I looked) would like it.