FTW Explains: Leap years and leap day
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2020 is a leap year, and Saturday, February 29th is leap day – but why exactly do we have leap years, and why do they only occur every four years? We’ve got you covered. Here’s all you need to know about leap years:
If you were to ask anyone how many days are in a year, they’d almost certainly respond with “365.” The Earth needs a bit more time to make one complete orbit around the sun, however. One complete orbit takes 365.256 days, or roughly 365 days and six hours.
Losing a few hours each year isn’t a huge deal – but over long stretches of time, those extra days would add up, and suddenly the calendar would unravel, and seasons around the world would no longer correspond to the months we’ve become accustomed to.
In 45 BC, inspired by the Egyptians’ solar calendar, Julius Caesar introduced his 365-day Julian Calendar, which included one leap year every four years, with a leap day added in February.
Caesar’s math was slightly off, however, and his system still could not account for a loss of 11 minutes each year. More than a thousand years later, this discrepancy was fixed by Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced what we now call the Gregorian calendar. Under the new system, a leap year was still observed every four years – unless it was a “century” year (1500, 1600, 1700) that was not divisible by 400 (such as 2100).
The Gregorian calendar also had to make up for the time lost during the period the Julian calendar was used, so the days between October 4th and October 15th were skipped. When you went to sleep on October 4th, you woke up on October 15th.
If you’re more of a visual learner, FTW alum Greg Presto explained leap years in this very helpful video.
Why is it February 29th? We've got you covered.
Leap Year Politics
Imagine Independence Day as July 5.
Feb. 29, 2012 — intro: Leap Years come every four years, making the 29th of February a day for the history books. From politician “Leaplings,” who are children born on that extra February day, to presidents announcing their re-election bids, here are some political factoids with Leap Year connections. And if it weren’t for one Leap Year in particular, Americans would celebrate July 5 instead of July 4.
quicklist: 1 category: Declaration of Independence Signed title: 1776 url: text:
The Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in a Leap Year.
If it weren’t for that extra day, July 5 might be filled with the fireworks and patriotic displays typical of the July 4 holiday.
Presidential elections have always fallen on a leap year except for the very first in 1789. It is the only election to not fall in a Leap Year.
quicklist: 2 category: William “Alfalfa” Murray on cover of TIME Magazine title: Feb. 29, 1932 url: text:
William “Alfalfa” Murray, the governor of Oklahoma, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine after deciding to run for president.
One of the more eccentric politicians of his time, a main tenet of Murray’s campaign platform was to give every hungry American “Bread, Butter, Bacon and Beans.” As governor of Oklahoma, he allowed people to farm potatoes on the grounds of the governor’s mansion.
Murray got his nickname “Alfalfa” after starting a successful farm known for its alfalfa crop in Oklahoma.
quicklist: 3 category: First African-American Wins Oscar title: Feb. 29, 1940 url: text:
Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” which won 10 Academy Awards and was the first film to win more than five Oscars.
Only six other African-American women have won Academy Awards since, including Halle Berry, who is the lone black woman to win Best Actress, in 2001, and Octavia Spencer, who won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Help” this year.
quicklist: 4 category: Rep. Bart Stupak Born title: Feb. 29, 1952 url: text:
Rep. Bart Stupak was born. Stupak, a Democrat, represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 to 2001.
Other prominent Leaplings: Former U.S. Rep. Rollie Redlin (1920), who represented North Dakota from 1965 to 1967; U.S. astronaut Jack Lousma (1936), who later ran as a Republican for a Michigan Senate seat in 1984 but lost to Carl Levin; and rap and hip-hop artist Ja Rule (1976).
quicklist: 5 category: Eisenhower Announced Re-Election Bid title: Feb. 29, 1956 url: text:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced he will run for re-election.
In September of 1955, Eisenhower, who was serving his first term as president, suffered a heart attack, causing some to question whether he was physically capable of seeking a second term. In December, he considered not running for president, but after consultation with his personal physician, Eisenhower announced in a televised address to the nation Feb. 29, 1956, that he would seek re-election.
Eisenhower’s 1956 opponent, Democrat Adlai Stevenson, was a rematch from his 1952 bid. Eisenhower won the 1956 election with 57.4 percent of the vote.
quicklist: 6 category: Pedro Zamora, HIV/AIDS Activist, Born title: Feb 29, 1972 url: text:
Pedro Zamora, an openly gay HIV/AIDS activist, was born. Zamora gained notoriety when he revealed he was living with AIDS on “The Real World: San Francisco.”
Zamora testified before Congress in 1993 and called for the implementation of more in depth HIV/AIDS programs.
Zamora died in 1994, and President Bill Clinton praised Zamora for putting a face to HIV/AIDS in America.
quicklist: 8 Category: Former Rep. Florence Dwyer Died title: Feb 29, 1976 url: text:
Former Rep. Florence Dwyer died. Dwyer, the second woman from New Jersey to serve in Congress, represented the Garden State in the U.S. House of Representatives for eight terms, starting in 1956.
While in Congress, Dwyer, a Republican, co-sponsored the Equal Pay Act.
Dwyer once said of being a woman in politics, “A congresswoman must look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, speak on any given subject with authority and, most of all, work like a dog.”
Leap Years come every four years, making the 29th of February a day for the history books. From politician "Leaplings," who are children born on that extra February day, to presidents announcing their re-election bids, here are some political factoids with Leap Year connections. And if it weren't for one Leap Year in particular, Americans would celebrate July 3 instead of July 4.