By Donna Woodwell, MA
When you pick up your smart phone and scroll through any app that allows you to select your time zone – you’re holding a piece of technology that was made possible, in part, by the research of astrologers.
Yes, you read that right: astrologers.
Knowing the precise time in a given location is a key ingredient in casting an astrological chart. For most of history, timekeeping has been a local affair – when the Sun was directly overhead it was “noon” and clocks were set accordingly. However, with the advent of mass transit and mass communication came the need to standardize timekeeping. An international convention met in 1884 to set the international dateline and establish 24 global time zones.
Since then, how individual countries and cities have related to this global timekeeping tapestry has been an ever-evolving system. Consider Daylight Saving Time, how regions on the border of time zones shift their temporal allegiance, adding leap seconds and other changes and a picture of the complexity of the question “What time is it?” emerges.
To keep up with these changes, astrologers have done what they have always done – they keep records. Over the decades, hundreds of astrologers have shared their data with one another. In the pre-Internet days, they contributed to periodicals like the Mercury Hour, to the collection efforts of individual astrologers such as Doris Chase Doane, or through astrological organizations like the American Federation of Astrologers. Astrologers used these sources as references for determining birth time when calculating charts by hand.
Then in 1978, Neil Michelsen’s company ACS Publications released the American Atlas (followed in 1985 by the International Atlas.) Astrological researcher and programmer Thomas G. Shanks combined the materials from earlier astrologers with data from national railway schedules and other public sources, as well as his educated guesswork, to create the most comprehensive single source for time zone information available at that time.
Meanwhile, with the advent of the information age, computer networks rapidly grew in complexity. Programmers of computer operating systems also recognized the need to have access to accurate information on time zone changes for desktop computers, transportation systems, banks, commerce and more.
In the late 1980s a group of programmers and researchers, including Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert, began to collaborate to create a standardized time zone database optimized for the needs of the information age. Although their time zone database (also known as the TZ Database) has an original database structure and a large number of volunteers who update and improve the database, when it was first established one of its sources for time zone data was the Thomas Shanks astrological atlases.
The September 2011 lawsuit filed by Astrolabe, the current owner of the ACS database, against the organizers of the TZ Database, claims that the use of data from the ACS tables in the tz database infringes on ACS’s copyright. Touching as it does on issues of intellectual property and copyright law, the case will be a matter for the courts to decide.
Regardless of the outcome, the fascinating footnote in the history of the information age remains: Data collected over decades by astrologers in order to produce accurate birth charts became a building block of time zone calculations used by modern information giants such as IBM, Apple, Google and others. Not since the days when astrological ephemerides of planetary positions were used by scientists to demonstrate that the Earth moves around the Sun has data collected by astrologers played such a role in the evolution of technology.
That the practice of astrology impacts society in such deep and unexpected ways is something of which astrologers can certainly be proud.
The Friends of Astrology Library contributed to this story.
Update February 27, 2012: Astrolabe formally withdrew its complaint against TZ Database researchers Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert. “Astrolabe’s lawsuit against Mr. Olson and Mr. Eggert was based on a flawed understanding of the law. We now recognize that historical facts are no one’s property and, accordingly, are withdrawing our Complaint. We deeply regret the disruption that our lawsuit caused for the volunteers who maintain the TZ Database, and for Internet users,” said Astrolabe in a statement released last week.
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