December 31, 1899. The passenger steamer SS Warrimoo was mid-Pacific heading for Australia from Vancouver. As the story goes, the ship was rapidly approaching a navigational fluke of the centuries. Captain John Phillips decided to take full advantage of the calm sea and clear evening. He confirmed the ship’s position, changed course slightly to bear directly on his mark and adjusted the engine speed. At midnight the Warrimoo lay on the intersection of the Equator and the International Date Line. As a result, the New Year 1900 Celebration aboard the Warrimoo was nearly lost.
The forward part of the ship (bow) was in the Southern Hemisphere where it was still the middle of summer and the date was now January 1, 1900. The stern was in the Northern Hemisphere, which was now in the middle of winter on December 31, 1899. The ship was in two different days, two different months, two different seasons and two different years.
Most important of all for the New Year 1900 Celebration, the ship was also in two different centuries. The passengers would have been cheated out of the New Year’s Eve, but they realized all they had to do was run from one end of the ship to the other.
First, we must overlook the ongoing debate about what date actually marks the beginning of the century. Some insist it’s like our own birthdays, which add one more year only after we have lived 364 days plus one. Others say the century starts on January 1 of the new century.
That debate aside, this story about the New Year 1900 celebration that nearly disappeared might be more of a tall tale than full blown fake news. Nevertheless, a good New Year’s resolution is to always question what you read.
Regarding this New Year’s tall tale, SpatialReserves.com points out:
“the International Date Line (IDL) as we know it today was not in place back in 1899. The nautical date line not the same as the IDL, is a de jure construction determined by international agreement. It is the result of the 1917 Anglo-French Conference on Time-Keeping at Sea, which recommended that all ships, both military and civilian, adopt hourly standard time zones on the high seas. The United States adopted its recommendation for U.S. military and merchant marine ships in 1920
…Conceivably, the ship could have reached the 0/180 point in a few hours, but whether it could have maneuvered in such a way to get the bow and stern in different hemispheres is unlikely, given the accuracy of measurement devices at the time. Sextants have an error of as at least 2 kilometers in latitude, and chronographs about 30 kilometers in longitude. Or, they could already have reached the desired point earlier in the day and not have known it.
Still, it’s fun to imagine passengers running from one end of the ship to the other on New Year’s Eve in 1899.
In 1895, Mark Twain was travelled to Australia aboard the S.S. Warrimoo on a world speaking tour. He wrote an account of his trip in Following the Equator. He notes that the equator looked like a blue ribbon stretched across the ocean. “Several passengers “Kodak’d it apparently using their new Kodak cameras that had become all the rage.
Three days later, he describes crossing the international dateline:
While we were crossing the 180th meridian it was Sunday in the stern of the ship where my family were, and Tuesday in the bow where I was. They were there eating the half of a fresh apple on the 8th, and I was at the same time eating the other half of it on the 10th–and I could notice how stale it was, already. The family were the same age that they were when I had left them five minutes before, but I was a day older now than I was then. The day they were living in stretched behind them half way round the globe, across the Pacific Ocean and America and Europe; the day I was living in stretched in front of me around the other half to meet it.
Along about the moment that we were crossing the Great Meridian a child was born in the steerage, and now there is no way to tell which day it was born on. The nurse thinks it was Sunday, the surgeon thinks it was Tuesday. The child will never know its own birthday. It will always be choosing first one and then the other, and will never be able to make up its mind permanently. This will breed vacillation and uncertainty in its opinions about religion, and politics, and business, and sweethearts, and everything, and will undermine its principles, and rot them away, and make the poor thing characterless, and its success in life impossible.
If Twain had been on that same ship New Year 1900, he undoubtedly would have delighted in stepping from one century to the other and back again.
Happy New Year to all!
Racing Nellie Bly
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