Moses B. Cotsworth

Moses B. Cotsworth (1859 – 1943)
By Anna Cook

Today Moses Bruines Cotsworth has been largely forgotten but for a generation he was the world’s leading authority on international calendar systems, ancient and modern. He was a passionate calendar reformer who travelled to sixty countries to spread the message. He convinced many of the benefits of his thirteen-month ‘Yearal’ calendar including the founder of Eastman-Kodak, George Eastman, who not only supported him financially but joined the campaign.

Cotsworth was also very interested in climate change and developed his own theories concerning the movement of the earth’s crust through different climatic zones. He was essentially self-taught and his rise to international notoriety was self-driven. His determination alone propelled him from the Blue Coat School for orphans and destitute boys in York to the League of Nations in Geneva.

Cotsworth was born in 1859, in Willitoft, East Riding of Yorkshire. His father, George, was an agricultural labourer who succumbed to consumption when Cotsworth was almost two years old. His mother, Sarah, in a bid to support herself and her son found work as a servant in York while Cotsworth was cared for by grandparents. It was in his grandparents’ house that his passion for calendars began. There was little furniture in the house apart from a large oak chest which housed clothes and the family’s books: the bible and a selection of old almanacs. Cotsworth was fascinated by these and poured over them from an early age.

Little is known of his early education but in 1870 he was accepted at the Blue Coat School in York. The head teacher there, Edward Robinson, and his wife had revolutionised the education and care of the boys. They were now permitted to sit at mealtimes, they no longer had to share beds, and warm bedcovers had been bought but the most dramatic change occurred in the curriculum. Handicraft classes had been replaced by more rigorous academic work upon which Cotsworth thrived. After he left school, in 1873, he returned to the school most evenings, with Robinson’s encouragement, to use the library. He taught himself shorthand by taking notes as he listened to “slow readers” read economics text books out loud. He also studied for civil service exams by working backwards from the given answers to determine the methods and principles to use. Cotsworth found employment with the North Eastern Railway as a clerk where word soon spread of his mathematical talents. By the age of twenty-three he was compiling the tithe records for the diocese of York.

He left York around 1884 to join the Aire and Calder Navigation Company and then Manners Colliery, in Nottinghamshire, but in 1892 he was enticed back. The N. E. R. had established a new statistical department. Cotsworth was charged with producing monthly accounts and statistics for company board meetings but he was frequently exasperated by the impossibility of accurately comparing figures across different months. Some months had thirty days, some thirty-one, some included four weekends and some five. One week could run across two different months or even across two years: December to January. Add a Christmas Bank Holiday in the middle of a working week and the result was statistical chaos. With his tendency, as Robinson had expressed it, of going to the ‘far end of everything’ he started to investigate calendars and their origins in the hope of finding a solution.

One of his many proposals was that early man would have been aware of the movement of shadows and may have erected sticks, or later, stones to mark the passage of time. He visited Stonehenge and the Devil’s Arrows at Boroughbridge to determine whether they were aligned with the sun and whether their stones acted as gnomons. He considered that nearer to the equator a taller gnomon would be required to cast an effective shadow and proposed that a single stick would not be stable at the height required so he sought a more suitable shape. Many experiments followed; from these he deduced that the pyramid was the most appropriate shape and from there it was a small step to theorising that the pyramids of Ancient Egypt had been giant sundials which marked the progress of the year. He met with Charles Piazzi Smyth at his home in Ripon and corresponded with W. M. Flinders Petrie to try to establish whether their measurements of the Great Pyramid at Giza would support his theory.

Meanwhile he also worked on developing on a new calendar; one that would solve all of his statistical problems. Cotsworth’s Yearal contained thirteen twenty-eight-day months. Every month would begin on a Sunday and would contain four seven-day weeks. Weeks could no longer be stretched across two different months and months would always be of a consistent length. All of Cotsworth’s problems concerning the comparison of railway statistics between different weeks or months would evaporate. He also envisaged that the lot of every worker would be improved:

“The… housewife who gets her “monthly allowance” for housekeeping, etc., often finds herself short of money at the end of months containing 5 week-ends, when each entails payments to grocer, butcher, etc… [This] may appear trivial to wealthy persons, but those who live amongst the toiling masses well know that these differences, due to the erratic calendar, do occasion real hardship to deserving people.” (i)

He hoped that, if his calendar was shared internationally, it would improve and expedite travel and trade between nations:

“[It] would facilitate international intercourse; the people of various nationalities would thus gradually become better known to each other… [in order to] promote the general convenience as well as foster the friendly intercourse of our common humanity the wide world over, above the distinctions of race or creed.”

But Cotsworth was not content with just altering the world’s calendar. He also devised a plan to fix Easter. The date of Easter was determined by calculations concerning the date of the first full moon after March 21st. This caused Easter Sunday to wander through the calendar from March 22nd to April 25th across different years disrupting education and business timetables. Following extensive research and numerous calculations into the historical mean rainfall, hours of sunshine and average temperatures of each day during March and April, Cotsworth suggested that Sunday 9th April would be the most appropriate Easter Day.

He joined the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, in 1899, and became friends with Tempest Anderson. Calendar plans were discussed and Cotsworth published a small pamphlet: The Rational Almanac for the Twentieth Century, which contained his first tentative plans for the Yearal. Although later commentators noted the similarity between the Yearal and the Positivist calendar of Augustus Comte, developed in 1849, Cotsworth always maintained that he had worked his out from first principles with no knowledge of the previous system.

By 1900 Cotsworth was exhausted, a family of five children, full-time work at the N. E. R. and rising at 4 am each day to carry out his calendar work, had sapped his strength. His doctor Henry Shann ordered him to rest but rather than going to Torquay or some traditional seaside haunt Cotsworth set off for Egypt. He arrived in Port Said, Egypt, on board SS Osiris, in November 1900.

Following extensive measurements of the pyramids at Giza he determined that: ‘the real object of the pyramids was to determine the seasons and exact length of the year by their regular grading and recurring shadows’ thus providing vital knowledge of a complete system of time and it’s measurement for the Egyptians. He thought that the pyramids’ size, height and slope were all designed to cast the most accurate shadows while the presence of numerous sites showed that the Egyptians had refined the accuracy of their structures over generations as their knowledge had developed. Ali Gabry, who had assisted many eminent Egyptologists from Howard Vyse onwards, escorted him across the desert to the pyramids at Sakkara and Dashoor where Cotsworth proposed that the Dashoor site was more recent than the one at Sakkara as its slope produced a more accurate shadow which seemed to be oriented to record the winter solstice.

He developed the opinion that the ancient Egyptians could not have been so self-aggrandising as to build such vast structures just to bury their dead. Only once a pyramid had been discarded, and one more accurate as a gnomon built, was it used as a tomb: ‘How can we think it possible that any body of men could ever have been so foolish as to waste their energies upon such a huge work merely for a Tomb, seeing that all men come down to one dead-level to meet their God at death?’

Cotsworth had supposed that the shadow cast by the Great Pyramid would become shorter towards the spring equinox, March 21st, and would disappear on that date. Flinders Petrie, after reading a letter from Cotsworth, replied that the shadow disappeared around 27th February which threw the entire theory into doubt. Cotsworth’s photographic observations put the date at 3rd March but that date was still some weeks before the equinox. Even the fact that the pyramid would have been slightly taller when complete with its casing stones could not account for the difference: ‘It seemed as though my theory was shaken… I was then by gradual reasoning and deduction reluctantly brought to the conclusion that a change had taken place in the Latitude of Cairo during the last 5,000 years, but felt that such a theory would only be ridiculed unless I could find other proofs of such a change.’

Cotsworth reached home healthy and reinvigorated, convinced of the role ancient monuments played in measuring calendar time, and tentatively considering that the pyramids had changed latitude since they were erected. He revisited his measurements of Stonehenge and other monuments and decided that as they too: ‘showed evidence of a corresponding change of Latitude [he was] more confident that such a change has all along been going on, and still continues.’ Cotsworth did not have: ‘the slightest idea that such changes had been thought possible by scientific men. Indeed I hesitated for two years before naming it to anyone, because it seemed so opposed to generally accepted ideas.’

Cotsworth supported the geological theory that the continents moved and had done, at least, since the Egyptian pyramids had been constructed hence the discrepancies he had discovered in the equinoxial dates there. He believed that the earth’s outer crust gradually moved around a central core and he found supporting evidence in rock strata:

“The successive layers of rocks nearly all over the World disclose these and other recurring formations which must have been formed whilst those respective parts of the World passed by varying cycles very slowly through the Tropical and Sub-Tropical Zones from which most are now removed… Thus each part of the Earth’s surface would varyingly be brought under Polar, Temperate and Tropical Climates.”

He considered that this was the mechanism by which the earth was alternately rested and renewed and, given his deep Quaker faith, he proposed that the movement was evidence of a continuing creation:

“the Eternal Wisdom, in accordance with that beneficent design which directs the Universe, simply worked through Natural Forces to ensure that wonderful renewal of the Earth’s fertility by climatic changes which, being on such a vast scale immensely beyond the length of the seasons or human records, men have hitherto failed to realise.”

Cotsworth did more than just record the evidence for changing latitude and polar movement. He deduced a theory which explained its ultimate cause:

“The Great Ice Cap of Greenland… is accumulating [ice] to such a vast thickness that the excessively stupendous weight there so abnormally developed, must necessarily tend to turn the whole Earth, as the super-incumbent weight upon the Greenland area thus follows its natural tendency to gravitate towards the Celestial Equator.”

He predicted that the Earth’s crust would continue to move:

“until equilibrium will be reached when about half of the Greenland ice-cap is melted backwards. Then it will be diverted during later centuries by the corresponding accumulations of glacial ice in another direction as the climatic change… does not recur in cycles, like the seasons, but is deflected by the gravitational force resulting from the stupendous difference in weight between the massive glacial ice that accumulates upon mountainous land in contrast with the thin ice formed on the sea in the Polar region.” (ii)

Cotsworth used his continental movement theory to explain why the characteristics of the inhabitants of different continents varied:

“We know that the great races of Assyria, Phoenicia, Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire existed where we now find the feebler races of Turks, Greeks, Italians and Spaniards… The explanation of that, I think, is less in the races themselves, than in the fact that this turning of the World is bringing Southern Europe, etc., towards the arid, enervating Sahara Zone… Thus it appears that the races of Southern Europe – Greeks, Romans, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, etc., – have been losing vitality through their countries gradually drifting more towards the arid Desert Region now occupied by the Southern Mediterranean and Sahara…

The vigour of North Americans as also of Scotchmen is mainly due to their bracing Northern climate … as our American cousins in U.S.A. during future centuries become weakened by this Southward turning, the hardier Canadian generations will tend to predominate in physical and intellectual vigour.”

Cotsworth, while perhaps a little fanciful in supposing that the Roman Empire fell due to the effect of the increasing heat on its population, did predict future conflict due to climate change before many more eminent scientists had made that connection. He thought that confrontation would ensue: ‘for the bracing and energizing territories… where wealth and comfort [and food] can best be developed.’ He suggested that climate change across the globe should be studied: ‘to enable Governments to anticipate and prepare migration or water supplies for drying regions, or prevention of floods where increasing rainfall indicates needs developing.’ (iii)

Although Cotsworth may not have been absolutely correct in his assumptions recently scientists have discovered a link between increasing violence and times of instability across the world with extremes of temperature or rainfall. (iv)

Cotsworth continued to study climate change and presented a paper entitled On the Continuous Glacial Period to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1906, which described a continual ice age as continents moved in and out of the constantly renewing Polar Regions. As a result of his badgering the B. A. A. S. was moved to form a group to establish whether an official committee should be called to consider the evidence for climate change. Cotsworth was appointed secretary. At the Blackpool meeting of B. A. A. S. in September 1936 Cotsworth’s contribution was recognised by the committee and it was decided that a presentation should be prepared for the International Geological Congress, to be held in Moscow, in 1937. He prepared a new pamphlet Geology’s Interest Hinges on Changing Climates, in readiness, in which he reiterated his evidence for change and encouraged schools to teach geology. Unfortunately the congress was overshadowed by Stalin’s Great Purges and the momentum was lost.

In 1905 Cotsworth published The Rational Almanac. It was an extraordinary book; a tall but narrow volume designed to fit a gentleman’s pocket. Its dark blue cover was adorned with intriguing images of Egyptian designs and pyramids in gold. The contents were was no less elaborate as he had squeezed all of his theories and ideas into this small book. But readers could be forgiven for overlooking what Cotsworth considered to be the most important message in his work as the vast proportion of the book explained all of his thoughts, at length, on the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, latitude and climate changes and more. Calendar reform filled only a small section but he believed that by including his other research the book would appeal to a wider audience.

The final work was quite chaotic both in the range of subjects tackled and in the composition. He used italics, bold-type, whole words in capital letters and many underlined phrases while some passages were also marked by vertical lines. There was little relief in the page numbering system. The small volume had over 450 erratically numbered pages. Pages 1 to 16 were followed by 1 to 64 and then an insertion of 16 pink coloured ones. He recognised its shortcomings but was unable to finance any revisions of his self-published work. He did, however, thoughtfully include a photograph of himself, at the end of the book, in order that anyone who wished to discuss calendar reform could recognise and approach him.

In The Rational Almanac he explained that the new Yearal was made up of thirteen, twenty-eight-day, months plus an extra ‘Year-Day’ not associated with any day of the week. At first he thought that this dies-non should be Christmas Day but later, after objections from Christian churches, he decided that the extra day should be inserted as 29th December. Likewise any necessary leap-day would be 29th June. The extra month would be named ‘Sol’ and would be placed after June but before July.

He began to bombard government officials and heads of industry, business and education around the world with his Yearal propaganda: ‘Thoughtful men in every country who desire the collective welfare of their people and humanity, should strive to impress the minds of their ministers and rulers with the manifest advantages which would result from Almanac Reform.’ Several already had. Amongst the scheme’s early supporters were French astronomer, Camille Flammarion; English peer, Lord Avebury, and Sir Norman Lockyer, founder of the journal Nature. On a trip to Canada Cotsworth had met Sir Sandford Fleming who became a valued friend and agreed to present his paper The Need for a Rational Almanac to the Royal Society of Canada.

Cotsworth’s railway career came to an abrupt end at the end of 1907. He had agitated for paid holiday at N. E. R., fair superannuation for the men and had started a branch of Railway Clerk’s Association union. Dismissal from the railway company speedily followed. Undaunted, and with connections in British Columbia, he and his family emigrated there in 1910. It is beyond the scope of this essay to chart his career in the province. His fight against patronage and political corruption lead to the publication of his inflammatory pamphlet The Crisis in B. C. which resulted in spurious legal charges against him and the dramatic collapse of the Conservative party at the 1916 election. Throughout all of his difficulties, however, he continued the campaign for calendar reform and the movement gathered pace. It received attention in the press, often due to Cotsworth’s submissions, in the U. S. A., Canada and to a lesser extent in Britain and Europe. He spoke at meetings and clubs wherever he could and started to write a range of pamphlets which was, eventually, to number over sixty.

Cotsworth decided to start his first thirteen-month year at the end of 1916 as the arrangement of days at the end of the year made the transition to a new calendar relatively straightforward. By inserting a ‘Year-Day’ at the end of 1916 the New Year could start on Sunday 1st January 1917. This natural starting point would allow a couple of years of preparation during which all nations could adjust their systems in readiness for the change. The public would be familiarised with the amendments, schools would teach the changes and the world of business would quickly adapt. Cotsworth believed that the transition, from the old calendar to the new, would be relatively straight-forward and he was convinced that once its benefits had been explained it would gain eager and widespread support.

He publicised reform and travelled at his own expense. After printing ten thousand copies of his Royal Society of Canada paper to send around the globe and sixty thousand pamphlets for the United States he wrote to Fleming that all of his reserves had been exhausted. He mortgaged his house in order to fund the campaign but remained convinced that he was staging the final push before its worldwide adoption. Support was increasing. Several Chambers of Commerce across the U. S. A., and Europe, were sympathetic to the cause and although some delegates were in favour of other reform schemes the debate as a whole was well under way. The concept that modernising the measurement of the year was possible was quickly gaining ground in the commercial world. The Swiss government took the lead and suggested staging a conference. It began to ask for expressions of interest from international governments but the outbreak of WW1 brought any preparations to a halt.

Cotsworth resumed his calendar crusade in the early 1920s. His earlier work with Chambers of Commerce paid dividends as they put the topic to the League of Nations which agreed to establish a committee of enquiry. But by that time he was seriously short of funds. Cotsworth survived on a diet of bread, cheese and watered-down milk in a New York hotel as he strove to convince the city’s great and good of the benefits of reform. Here he was introduced to Abraham Cressy Morrison, a Union Carbide executive, who through a friend, presented Cotsworth to George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak. Eastman was very interested in the potential benefits for his company and was reported as saying that anyone with Cotsworth’s sincerity deserved backing. He agreed to fund the campaign and to openly champion it.

With Eastman’s financial backing Cotsworth was able to knock on doors throughout the capital cities of Europe to explain his calendar. Eastman led the campaign in America. General Motors, Fox Studios, GEC, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and F. W. Woolworth Co. were just a few of the influential commercial bodies that openly supported the Yearal. Indeed Eastman Kodak used the thirteen-month system for their internal accounting up until the 1980s.

The League of Nations continued to investigate possible reform. It asked for potential schemes and was deluged by over one hundred and fifty new calendar plans which Cotsworth tabulated. The two leading contenders were the Yearal and the World Calendar: a perpetual twelve-month plan promoted by Miss Elisabeth Achelis, a New York society heiress. She had heard Dr Melvin Dewey speak in support of the Yearal and, horrified by its rigidity and monotony, had vowed to fight against the plan.

Cotsworth’s campaign culminated in a conference on Calendar reform and the stabilisation of Easter which was held under the remit of the Communications and Transit Section of the League of Nations, in October 1931. It was quickly decided at the meeting that most countries were in favour of stabilising Easter, indeed Britain had already passed an Easter Act in 1928, but that religious bodies should have the final decision. While many churches were willing, in principle, none wished to act unilaterally and as the Holy See in Rome had expressed its disapprobation the discussion did not progress any further.

An earlier League meeting had proposed that each country should form a national committee to debate reform and report any decision at the conference. Cotsworth had hurtled around Europe and the much of the American continent to encourage countries to establish committees but only just over half of member states had formed one by the start of the conference. While several countries were in favour of some kind of reform, others were not convinced that the current calendar caused so many issues that it needed changing at all. The strongest opposition came from the Jewish faith whose representatives explained that by adding a dies non it would be impossible to observe the Sabbath on its usual day as the week which contained it would be eight days long. If a cycle of seven days was maintained following an eight-day week then the Sabbath would no longer start on Friday evening but would start on Saturday evening. Each year it would move onwards another day through the week; or two in a leap year. For a significant number of years the Sabbath would be divorced from the weekend. This would disadvantage those Jews who adhered to the seven-day cycle as they would have to refrain from work or education when the Sabbath fell on a weekday. Some believed that the whole reform argument was moot as it was beyond the power of man to change the number of days in a week. With no comment from a large number of member governments and hostility from several religious groups the conference could do nothing but come to the conclusion that with regard to calendar reform it was not ready to decide.

Cotsworth, ever the optimist, decided that the lack of publicity for his Yearal had led directly to the conference’s conclusion and he took to the road again. He met with Eastman to discuss a plan of action and funding but just days later Eastman committed suicide. It later transpired that Eastman had been in touch with representatives from all of his philanthropic works and projects before he died so that he could leave everything in order. The University of Rochester, via an Eastman bequest, funded Cotsworth for another couple of years due, in part, to the fact that Cotsworth could be somewhat persuasive.

By 1935, however, aged seventy-six, he was left with little support beyond a small private annuity. Although he was prepared to resort to bread and cheese once again to accomplish his dream his health was failing. The proposed League of Nations conference, which was due to take place that year, was postponed to 1936. But as the world descended into war, and the League of Nations disintegrated, the conference was forgotten altogether.

In 1938 Cotsworth retired from the reform campaign. Although Miss Achelis continued her crusade until 1956 the golden age of reform had passed and the issue has not made its way back onto the world’s agenda. Today, if the reformers are remembered at all, they are viewed as eccentrics rather than, as they believed, pioneers of modernisation.

Cotsworth died on 4th June 1943 in Vancouver, Canada. His library and papers were donated to the University of British Columbia. They reveal the extraordinary, selfless, lengths he went to in order to bring calendar reform to the world and leave just tantalising glimpses of many of his other exploits: a visit to Russia to convince Stalin to adopt a six-day week; a note that he possessed a calendar rod from Tutankhamen’s tomb; a journey riding illegally on mail sacks in a cargo plane. As Cotsworth always claimed he had a more interesting life than many men.

All quotes, except those listed below, (i) from Cotsworth, M. B. (1905) The Rational Almanac York: Author
(ii) Cotsworth, M. B. (1912) The Glacial Cause of Changing Climates Vancouver: Saturday Sunset Presses
(iii) Cotsworth, M. B. (1909) British Columbia’s Supreme Advantages in Climate, Resources, Beauty & Life Victoria: R. Wolfenden
(iv) Hsiang, Solomon M. et al (2013) ‘Quantifying the Influence of Climate on Human Conflict’ Science (Vol. 341)

To find out more:
Contact Anna Cook via Facebook
Access The Rational Almanac online

Image Credits:
Moses Cotsworth, in 1922, public domain
Moses Cotsworth in Egypt 1900/01 and measuring shadow at St. Margaret’s church, Walmgate from The Rational Almanac public domain
The Rational Almanac photograph by Anna Cook