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Mark Morton, author

A chat about the millennium

October 1, 1999
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

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(CNN) -- Mark Morton, author of "The End: Closing Words for the Millennium" joined CNN.com on October 1, 1999, to kick off the Year 2000 chat series. The following is an edited transcript of the chat with Morton, who joined our chat room from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Chat Moderator: Welcome, Mark Morton!

Mark Morton: Hello, everyone out there!

Chat Moderator: Please tell us about your book "The End: Closing Words for the Millennium."

Mark Morton: "The End" is a book that I co-authored with Gail Noble. What we wanted to do was find out how people living at the ends of previous centuries celebrated the end of their century. And, essentially, we researched and compiled several thousand written documents from the ends of previous centuries. Then we selected the most interesting ones and wove them together with a commentary.

The kinds of documents that we discovered were, first of all, letters and diary entries that people wrote on the very last days of previous centuries. And they also included documents like newspaper editorials and news items and songs and literally hundreds and hundreds of poems, mostly quite bad poems, all of which were written on the very last day of a century or at least during the closing weeks of a century.

The book is serious in some regards but itís also full of a lot of humor in other ways. It really is a kind of cross section of what people thought and did at the ends of the last three centuries.

Chat Moderator: Why did you focus on the last three centuries?

Mark Morton: When we first started out to write the book, Gail and I assumed that we would be able to go many many centuries back. But what we discovered early on was that it was only at the end of the 17th century that people started to take note of the end of their century.

There are a number of reasons why it wasn't until the end of the 17th century that people started to care about the turn of the century. The main reason is that it wasn't until the Sixth Century AD that the calendar system we use was invented. It was invented by a monk named Dionysios Exiguus. And the reason he invented that calendar was that they wanted an easier way to calculate the date of Easter because, up until then, the church had been using the ancient Roman calendar. Then it wasn't for another four centuries that Dionysios' new calendar caught on. And, even then, it was really only used by clergy.

Question from Bocefus: My first question is: why is the change of a century so traumatic?

Mark Morton: I think philosophers would say that it has to do with something called "reification." Reification is the human tendency to turn symbols or treat symbols as if they are real things. For instance, when I was a kid, I was driving along with my father one day when the odometer of our Buick skylark turned over and went back to 00000. We stopped the car on the highway and the whole family got out and we took turns leaning into the car and looking at the odometer. On the one hand, that number, that sequence of zeros, is completely arbitrary. It's just a symbol. On the other hand, symbols have tremendous emotional meaning to us. Just look at the ruckus that is happening in New York City this week, for example, at the art gallery where there is a painting of the Madonna smeared with elephant dung. This is outraging tens of thousands of people.

The same kind of thing can happen with a date like 1999. People grow attached to the era in which they have grown up in the same way that people grow attached to the place they are from. So, when we go from 1999 to 2000, it is as if we are changing homes. But it's a move that almost the entire world is making along with us.

Question from HOLDEN: Can you tell me something about how people celebrated?

Mark Morton: You bet. Letís take the end of the 19th Century. At the end of the 19th Century (which, by the way, was actually December 31st, 1900,) people did all kinds of peculiar and zany things.

In St. John, Canada, for example, the chief of police released all the prisoners in the city jail on Dec 31st because he wanted to give them a fresh start in the new century. In most major American cities, there were many couples who either got married in the last minute of the 19th Century or the first minute of the 20th Century. In other words, they were turning it into a kind of race. In fact, more people got married on the first day of the 20th Century than had been married any day before that in North American history.

Another thing that was very popular on the last day of the 19th Century was racing. In New York City, for example, there was a race that began in the first minute of the 20th Century and it started right downtown. It wound its way 13 miles through the city. But what made this race unusual was that any means of locomotion was permitted. So, in the New York Tribune, there was a description of how the street was crammed full of runners, people on horses, people on bicycles, and people in very primitive motor cars. And the winner of the race was a steam-powered vehicle, which finished the 13 miles in a little less than an hour.

Question from Mags: Did people plan to have their babies on New Yearís Day or close to New Yearís Day, as they are this year?

Mark Morton: Well, they may have done so at the end of the 19th Century but, back then, that kind of subject would have been considered too racy to be covered in the newspapers. Some people may have tried to conceive a child so that it would be born on the first day of the century but there aren't any actual newspaper reports from them that confirm that. The closest analogy would be the first-day-of-the-century weddings that I mentioned before.

Question from YoungYoung: Was there the same kind of hype back in 1899?

Mark Morton: There was a tremendous amount of excitement about the end of the century. But, as I was saying, this didn't occur until the end of 1900. I'll say a bit more in a minute about why they chose 1900 instead of 1899 but, first, I'll say a bit about one of the commercial undertakings that happened at the end of the 19th Century.

Back in 1899, there was a man named Frank Higbee. He hit upon the idea of arranging huge meetings on the last night of the 19th Century. He wasn't doing this out of the goodness of his heart but because he intended to charge people one dollar to attend these meetings which he called "Watch Night Meetings." So, in order to entice people to attend these meetings, Higbee needed some sort of carrot. What he did was convince the American Red Cross to endorse him as a kind of international ambassador so that he could travel around the world and collect new-century greetings from the most famous people in the world -- from the 100 most famous people in the world. He approached people such as Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, President McKinley, and so on, and got them to write little greetings to the new century. Once he had 100 of these greetings, then his plan was to read them all at his Watch Night Meetings on the last night of the century. It seemed like a great plan and, in fact, Higbee promised the American Red Cross that this scheme would earn them $300,000. But all kinds of problems arose. He offended Queen Victoria, for example, and he also offended Mark Twain. Both of them demanded that he return their new-century greeting at the last minute.

He also had trouble with the logistics of these huge Watch Night Meetings, like getting bands to play at them. In fact, at one of them, in Chicago, a death occurred. Just as midnight was sounding on the last night of the 19th Century at the Chicago Watch Night Meeting, an elderly man on the balcony of the stadium jumped to his feet and proclaimed that he was the Messiah. This offended a young man who was standing beside him and so he tackled the elderly man, causing him to fall over the balcony. Needless to say, this put a bit of a damper on the evening.

Comment from Candyce: We are not amused.

Question from cat^girl: Mark Morton, have you found that more people fear the new millennium or look forward to it with great excitement...and why?

Mark Morton: That's a really good question. Judging from how people reacted to the ends of previous centuries, I would say that people's attitudes really become polarized at that moment in time. What I mean is that people who tend to be pessimistic become even more pessimistic at the end of the century and people who are optimistic become even more optimistic. And this can be seen in the kinds of predictions people made at the end of the 19th Century about the 20th Century.

The pessimists seem to have been worried about three different things:* The first one was world war. A lot of people writing in the newspapers at the end of the 19th Century predicted that a world war would break out early in the 20th Century. In fact, the novelist Rudyard Kipling even specified the years. He said that a "great war" would occur between 1910 and 1915, which isn't that far wrong.

* Another thing that people at the end of the 19th Century predicted was overpopulation of the earth. They were very concerned that sometime in the 20th Century or beyond that the world would become too crowded to sustain life.

* The third thing was something called degeneration. They feared that in the 20th Century, changing social conditions would cause humans to evolve backwards and become like Darwin's monkeys. They feared that humans would lose their teeth earlier, grow bald earlier, and that they would lose their little toes.

Question from guest: Were people more optimistic at the ends of other centuries?

Mark Morton: At the end of the 19th Century there were also some optimistic predictions.

There were dozens of newspaper articles that predicted how electricity was going to solve all human woes. There were descriptions of electric plows that farmers would use, electric spankers that teachers would use, and all kinds of electrical devices.

Another thing that people had high hopes for was the telephone. People made predictions that the telephone would become so common that no one would ever have to leave their home. Businessmen would conduct their business over the phone and even church ministers would transmit their sermons into everyone's homes by means of the telephone. These predictions obviously sound very similar to predictions people are making now for the Internet.

Another area of technology that people speculated about involved flight. At this very time, Orville and Wilbur Wright were, in fact, experimenting with winged aircraft. But not many people knew about them. So, most of the predictions about flight involved various kinds of hot air balloons. For instance, the novelist H. G. Wells predicted that wars would be fought with something that he called "air sharks." These were big balloons with pointy bottoms that would be lifted above enemy balloons and then punctured so that they would plummet down and destroy the enemy.

Question from Condor: Mr. Morton, I assume that all the hype about the millennium is based on Judeo-Christian doctrines. Did any of the Buddhists, Muslims, etc., who account for one-half of the worldís population, share the fears?

Mark Morton: You are quite right. The end-of-the-century celebrations that will occur in a few months are really a Western phenomenon. Hundreds of millions of people in the world employ other calendar systems. For them, the end of the century may be no big deal. And itís also true that Christianity, in particular, with its doctrine of the millennium, accidentally has emphasized the importance of the year 2000. In actual fact, the Christian Millennium doesn't really have anything to do with the year 2000 but with the thousand years of heaven on earth that would follow the return of Christ.

Question from Maxy: Mr. Morton, did people attach more significance to millennium endings than they did to century endings?

Mark Morton: Another good question. In fact, this will be the first time that a millennium has really been celebrated. For a long time, it was thought that the end of the First Millennium (that is the year 999) inspired all kinds of frenzy. But, as far as I am aware, very little of that actually occurred. The reason is that, back in the year 999, most people, the common people, would not have conceived of time in quite that way. Rather than say it was 999, the typical peasant back then would probably have said that it was the eighth year of the reign of such and such a king. Or, that it was 10 years after the great fire or something like that. In other words, most people would have used a much more immediate and personal way of keeping time, instead of the official church calendar.

I should say, however, that there are some scholars, such as Richard Landes, who do believe that a lot of panic occurred at the end of the year 999. But the general consensus is still that those stories about the end of the first millennium are untrue and that they arose in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Chat Moderator: Mark, did you uncover whether or not people in the past celebrated the new century in '99 or in '00? Was there controversy then, too, over WHEN the end of the century should be celebrated?

Mark Morton: That's my favorite question. The odd thing is that most people are going to be celebrating the end of the 20th Century at the end of 1999. People living at the end of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries officially celebrated at the end of the Ď00 year. In other words, in North America and Europe, the official last day of the century was December 31st, 1900 -- except in Germany. The leader of Germany at that time was Kaiser Willhelm II. And he declared that the century ended on December 31st, 1899. So this means that Germany actually entered the 20th century one year before the rest of the world.

A lot of people did debate when the century ended. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of letters to the editor published in every newspaper in which people argued back and forth about when the century actually ended. And, in fact, that wasn't the only argument. Once they did get to December 31st, 1900, another argument arose about what was the precise moment at which the 20th Century dawned. Some people said that it dawned the moment it became midnight on the international dateline. Other people said that it dawned separately in each of the 24 time zones.

I recall seeing one magazine which had an illustration of a luxury liner which was situated exactly on the international dateline at midnight so that the front of the ship was in the 20th Century while the back of the ship was still in the 19th Century.

Question from piozzi: What are you doing to celebrate the millennium?

Mark Morton: Well, I live in Winnipeg, Canada, which is about 400 miles north of Minneapolis. On December 31st of any year it gets pretty cold. On the last day of the 19th Century, for instance, it was 40 degrees below zero in Winnipeg. So it may be difficult to engage in the kinds of public celebrations that people did in American cities at the end of the 19th Century. In fact, I'm a little worried about the Y2K bug. So I may just retreat to my basement and surround myself with a year's supply of pork and beans.

Comment from Sunny1: LOL!

Chat Moderator: Thank you, Mark Morton, for joining us today and kicking off our Year 2000 Chat Series!

Mark Morton: Thank you, it was fun! Those were very great questions. Have a good end of the century.

!
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