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ISO 8601 Dates: What They Are and How to Use Them
Contents 1. What They Are 2. In Programs 3. In Output 4. On Personal Computers
5. Fix Data/Programs A1. Important Dates A2. Leap Years A3. A Y2K Parable  

Appendix 2: All About Leap Years

 

 
     
 
     
Why We Have Leap Years
  A leap year is a year with one extra day inserted -- February 29th -- so that it has 366 days instead of the usual 365. This is to keep the calendar in synchronization with the actual orbit of the earth around the sun, so that the seasons continue to arrive on the same date. Currently, the earth circles the sun in 365.242189 days. This number declines by about .000013 days per century, so in 1500 the length of the astronomical year would have been 365.242254 days. The leap year system of the current Gregorian calendar was set up by Pope Gregory XIII and was placed into effect on October 15, 1582. (In some parts of the world, it was adopted much later. In Britain and its then colonies in America for instance, it was not adopted until 1752, and in Turkey not until 1927.) The Gregorian calendar's average year length of 365.2425 days is much closer to reality than the previous Julian calendar, which had an average year length of 365.25 days. If we wished to have complete synchronization, we would need to skip a leap year sometime several thousand years in the future; we will not worry about this.

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Rules for Calculating Leap Years in the Gregorian Calendar
 
  1. Every year divisible by 4 is a leap year. (For example, 1996 was a leap year.)
  2. Except that years divisible by 100 years are not leap years. (For example, 1900 was not a leap year.)
  3. Except that years divisible by 400 years are leap years. (So 2000 will be a leap year after all.)
The Leap Year Problem is that some programmers got only some of these rules right.

The most spectacular error is that many current spreadsheet programs follow only rules 1 and 2, but not 3, so  they treat the year 2000 as a "common year", instead of a leap year. (The existence of "corrective macros" has actually prevented the underlying bug from being fixed.) Many other programs use only rule 1, so that they incorrectly consider the year 1900 to be a leap year, even though they get the year 2000 right, by accident. There is no excuse for not following all three rules and getting this right.

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How to Test Your Programs for the Leap Year Problem:
  The easiest way is to get the program to give you the day of the week, and the day within the year (sometimes called Julian date) for a particular date. The following table lists the correct values for some of the most sensitive dates:
 
Date Day-of-Week Day-of-Year
1900-02-28 Wednesday 59
1900-02-29 (should be an error)
1900-03-01 Thursday 60
1900-12-31 Monday 365
2000-01-01 Saturday 1
2000-02-29 Tuesday 60
2000-03-01 Wednesday 61
2000-12-31 Sunday 366
2001-01-01 Monday 1
 
     
References:
 
  • Calendrical Calculations, by Nachum Dershowitz and Edward M. Reingold, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Fascinating and comprehensive coverage of the subject of calendars, by the foremost current experts. This web page contains a lot of information, allows you to download their programs, and provides a link for ordering the book. This web page also contains one of the best lists of calendar links.
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This page last updated 1998-08-20. Please send comments, such as reports of broken links, to the author: Roger Deschner
 
Using ISO 8601 Dates Previous:  A1. Important Dates Next:  A3. A Y2K Parable


2001-12-21  ACCC Documentation
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