The conflict between science and religion has had a long and colorful history. On many occasions a scientific fact or theory comes into conflict with someone's pet literal interpretation of the Bible. These literalists have suffered many defeats. Most have retreated into either ignoring science, or simply declaring untrue those parts of science they don't like.

But whenever a scientific result seems to support the Bible, the religion hucksters proclaim that glorious news from every pulpit! That doesn't happen as often as they would like these days, so some have taken to distorting or inventing science to suit their propaganda purposes. Seldom will the gullible believers trouble themselves to check out the facts. Thus outright fabrications can proliferate for years without challenge.

One such case occurred in 1970. Many newspapers ran a story headlined Computer Finds Joshua's Long Day. This story must have gladdened the hearts of the long-besieged literalists. It told of a NASA computer programmed to calculate planetary and lunar positions in the future and the past. While running the program into the past, the scientists were amazed when the computer "came to a halt.." and put up a red signal which meant that there was something wrong

"We have found there is a day missing in spice in elapsed time," someone said. (The lengthy article is rich in folksy conversations illustrating the perplexity of the scientists.)

Finally someone suggested that this missing day might represent the time when Joshua made the sun stand still. But the computer indicated that "The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua's day was 23 hours and 20 minutes," not a whole day. Someone produced a Bible and found that it said "about (approximately) a day." (I am here quoting the newspaper article, not the Bible.)

That removed an inconsistency, but there was still 40 minutes of time to be accounted for. Someone then remembered II Kings 20, where Isaiah made the shadow of the sun return backward ten degrees to impress the dying Hezekish. "Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes...Isn't that amazing? Our God is rubbing their noses in His TRUTH!"

If this is a bit confusing, I am sorry. The original article is worse, for it is laden with irrelevant details which obscure the facts. Stripped to its bare essentials, the story is this:

  1. The computer showed a missing 24 hours.

  2. Only 23 hours 20 minutes of that was "in Joshua's time".

  3. The remaining 40 minutes apparently was lost when Isaiah moved the son's shadow backward 10 degrees.

Anyone reading the original article and thinking about it would see that it is full of unanswered questions. To mention just a few:

  1. What was the precision of that 24 hour discrepancy?

  2. How could the computer pinpoint the discrepancy in "Joshua's time", rather then some other time?

  3. The 40 minutes was calculated by taking 10/360 of one day, which would be correct if the sun moved back ten degrees. But the Bible clearly says its shadow (the shadow of a stick or a sundial) moved ten degrees. These are not generally equivalent.

But there is an even more fundamental question. Did the incident ever happen? The story has all of the earmarks of a total fabrication invented by someone with little knowledge of science or of computers.

The newspaper story credited a "Mr. Harold Hill" as its source. Hill was described as a "consultant in the space program", and "President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore, Md".

My check with NASA sources revealed that Harold Hill's company had a contract to maintain two small diesel engines which powered backup electrical generators for one building at the Goddard Space Flight Center. So it is possible that Hill might have been there on at least one occasion, supervising that work. But that hardly qualifies him to be called a "consultant". Hill was in no way involved with any computer work there, or any other scientific project.

Jim Lacey, Public Information Officer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told me, by phone, that his office was deluged with inquiries about the newspaper article. "I checked it out 40 ways, from all angles, and it has no basis in fact," he says. He speculates that some of the computer people may have encountered Hill, perceived him to be a simpleminded, gullible religious nut, and told him a wild yarn to see if he would be foolish enough to believe it.

Lacey also notes that the newspaper account is full of obvious errors and fabrication. It reported that the incident "happened to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Md." But in fact, no astronauts ever worked at Greenbelt (it's one word).

At that time, computer time cost between $500 and $700 an hour. The computer programs were designed to predict future planetary positions for space missions. They seldom predicted more than 4 years ahead—the planning time of a space project. NASA has absolutely no reason to calculate past planetary positions.

Then there is the matter of accuracy. Any mathematical computation propagates error, since data are never perfect. A computer program of that type would produce worthless and meaningless answers if used to predict anything that far in the past. There is no way it could find a discrepancy as small as a day way back in ancient times. Anyone who believed the "Lost Day" story simply didn't understand the practical limitations of computers and of such data.

Finally, if such a far-fetched incident really had happened, it would surely have been published in a scientific journal. It would be of great importance to historians who need accurate datings of past events. No such publication has appeared.

In July, 1970 I wrote to Mr. Hill, raising questions such as these and requesting specific information on who had done the computer work, where they had published papers about it, etc.

Hill's reply came rather promptly: a form letter, addressed to "All who have requested additional MISSING DAY details." Mr. Hill had, by that time, received a "flood of over 1000 letters and phone calls." He says that the newspaper article was apparently adapted from "one of the many talks I have made on the subject of Science and the Bible and the perfect harmony which exists between them."

But Hill admits that "Since this incident first came to my attention about two years ago, I have misplaced the source of information and so am unable to give you names and places but will forward them as soon as I locate them. In the meantime I can only tell you that had I not considered the source to be completely reliable, I would not have made use of this information in the first place. I am interested in facts and not fiction." Sure.

It is now 1979. Nearly nine years have elapsed, and Mr. Hill has not sent me the "names and places". Perhaps the source of his second-hand story was not so reliable as he thought.

The remainder of Mr. Hill's form letter was devoted to the specious blather one often hears from "born again" Christians. In fact, he says, "Since meeting Jesus Christ personally about sixteen years ago, I need no scientific proof of God's Reality." But that doesn't stop Hill from including alleged scientific evidence for religion in his public speeches.

Mr. Hill is apparently not at all concerned that he might be perpetuating a fairy tale. He even encourages further dissemination of this fable by referring those who wish to reprint the article to contact the EVENING WORLD newspaper.

The many newspaper columnists who uncritically reprinted this story were obviously not concerned with checking its validity. One still sees the story reprinted in religious tracts and Sunday-school publications. The news media frequently print nonsense of this sort as if it were fact. When someone challenges its accuracy, a newspaper may print a correction, but bury it on a back page.

Many gullible people were convinced this story was true. Even now they may suspect that NASA's denials represent a "coverup". Things haven't changed much since Voltaire observed: "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning."


The story originally appeared in "Mary Kay's Kollum" (by Mary Kathryn Bryan) in the Spencer, Indiana EVENING WORLD, October 10, 1969. Other papers picked it up. Our own LOCK HAVEN EXPRESS had brief mention of it in John Rasmussen's "This-n-That" column. He reported that "The Lost Hour" (sic) item was read at a prayer breakfast of the Fraternal Order of Eagles State Auxiliary. "The reading was so well received by the FOE women, copies of "The Lost Hour were made at Clearfield for distribution to auxiliary members throughout Pennsylvania." This is how nonsense gets spread far and wide.

© 1979 by Donald E. Simanek.

THE LOST DAY, REVISITED, footnotes, Fall 1989.

[These notes were unpublished because I was unsuccessful in tracking down the Sir Edwin Ball source. Also, the project has been on the shelf for some while, since I assumed that this urban legend was dead. Now I see it popping up on the internet again. Perhaps such foolishness never dies so long as there are gullible people who want to believe such things are true.]

Since my report titled THE LOST DAY appeared in THE VECTOR back in 1979, certain additional information has come my way which may point to the source of this fable.

Harold Hill responded, to those who inquired, by saying that he includes the story in his public lectures as an example of the harmony of science and religion. He admits:

Concerning my source, I...cannot recall where I picked up this particular incident. I am usually very careful to check my sources and can only say that I have no time for fairy tales and had I not considered my source to be reliable, would not have used this material in the first place. [Christian Herald, Jan. 1973, p. 54.]

In a "personal note" to me (actually a form letter), dated 6/9/70, he says:

...I have misplaced the source information and so am unable to give you names and places but will forward them as soon as I locate them.

It has now been quite some while (over 20 years), and I have not heard from Hill. I suspect he didn't try very hard to find the source of his story, which says something about his concern for "truth". I do hear that he continues to use this fable in his public lectures, and from time to time I see it reprinted in newspapers and church bulletins.

A Vector reader, Bob Schadewald, kindly sent me a photocopy of a section from Harry Rimmer's 1936 book The Harmony of Science and Scripture. Rimmer recounts a story suspiciously like Hill's, which he credits to "a book by Prof. C. A. Totten of Yale, written in 1890." Rimmer also asserts, also without specific documentation, that "Sir Edwin Ball, the great British astronomer, found that twenty-four hours had been lost out of solar time."

Who is this Totten from Yale and what is his book? Bob Schadewald knew this wouldn't be easy to find, so he enclosed a reprint of Joshua's Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz, 1990, by Charles A. L. Totten, a "Professor of Military Science and Tactics at Yale. On the cover of this reprint edition (Destiny Publishers, Merrimac, MA 01860) Totten lists his degree as "M.A." It's curious how some people who cite "authorities" leave out such details. Reading Rimmer's reference to Totten you might easily think that Totten was a well-known Ph.D. scientist from Yale. This reprint edition of Totten's book has a preface by Howard B. Rand, with additional material by Rand in which he presents a theory that the earth's axis flipped over 180 degrees at the time of the long day.

Obviously these early versions of the story do not have computers or NASA in them! But their structure and many of the details are the same. Rimmer's account shows this:

Someone, a scientific person skeptical of the literal truth of the Bible, accidentally discovers (through astronomical calculation) that "the earth is twenty-four hours off schedule." Prof. Totten says, "Of course, just check your Bible to see if you can account for your missing time."

[Rimmer quotes Totten here, but the conversation is not mentioned in Totten's book, so the source of this detailed anecdote is not clear. Perhaps rimmer is taking literary liberties by imagining what Totten might have said to a skeptic. This whole account has the appearance of a parable, written to illustrate a moral, rather than a factual account of a real incident.]

The skeptic reads Joshua and finds that only 23 hours and 40 minutes were lost when Joshua made the sun stand still. "If the Bible made a mistake of forty minutes, it is not the Book of God!"

Totten points out that the Bible didn't say that a whole day was lost at the time of Joshua. It says "about the space of a whole day."

The skeptic took up his Bible reading again, and finally came to a passage in the 38th chapter of Isaiah. King Hezekiah was gravely ill, and in response to his prayer, God promised to add fifteen more years to his life. To confirm the truth of His promise, God offered a sign. He would make the sun advance 10 degrees. He said, "Go out in the court and look at the sundial of Ahaz. I will make the shadow on the sundial back up ten degrees!"

In 2 Kings 20:9-11 an additional detail is given, which is not in Isaiah. God offers as a sign to make the sun advance 10 degrees. Hezekiah answered "It is a light thing for the shadow to go down ten degrees: nay, but let the shadow return backward ten degrees." God was apparently in a good mood that day, and accepted the modification of the original plan. Why, one wonders, is it a "light thing" to make the shadow advance ten degrees, but miraculous to make it go back ten degrees? Of course the natural direction of shadow motion is an advance. Surely God wasn't proposing the normal rate of advance, but must have been proposing something miraculous, like a sudden advance. Let's credit God with some intelligence! I'd certainly be equally impressed with a sudden motion of the shadow in either direction.

Rimmer concludes, This settles the case, for ten degrees on the sundial is forty minutes on the face of the clock!"

My interest is in this story, the tale of the skeptic vs. Bible believer, told by Rimmer, repeated by Hill and others, and any earlier versions from which these were derived.

Anyone seriously interested in determining the origins of this story would seek out these books by Rimmer, Totten and Ball. This would be a good assignment for library research, since in all cases, the documentation is specific, yet incomplete.

This fable has been making the rounds ever since Sir Edwin Ball, and later Totten, popularized it. It may predate both of them! And, though certain facts and figures, like the 23 hours 20 minutes, 10 degrees on the sundial and 40 minutes on the clock, persist, the whole logic makes no sense in any version or on any level of interpretation. This story has all the characteristics of modern "urban folk tales", such as the "alligators in the sewer" stories.

This story's lack of internal logic is revealed by these specific questions:

Where in the story of Joshua did the skeptic find the 23 hours 20 minutes figure? [The story is found in Joshua 10:12-13] Notice that Hill's "modern" version of this fable says that the computer calculation arrived at this figure. The earlier (Rimmer) version of this story suggests that it came somehow from the Bible, not from astronomical calculation.

In the biblical account about king Hezikiah, which Rimmer references to Isaiah 38:8, and Hill to 2 Kings 20:9-11, the sun's shadow goes "backward" ten degrees. How does one calculate that a 10° movement of the shadow corresponds to 40 minutes? Simply (10°/360°)(24 hours) = 0.6 hours = 40 minutes. Now it is a rare sundial whose gnomon's shadow moves through the same angle as the sun. The angle of shadow movement varies with time of the year, time of the day, and orientation of the base plate of the sundial with respect to the earth's axis. [Whether the base plate is horizontal or tilted, for example.]

The biblical accounts do not give enough information to even guess at the values of these variables, or the type of sundial used. There are sundials designed and engraved to show true angle of the sun at all seasons. They are not the commonest kind, and to our knowledge weren't used until the middle ages. Most dials are not even marked in degrees. Still, a person intent on "proving" the validity of this interpretation might assume (without documentation) that an instrument marked in degrees was used. One might also assume that the reading of any type of sundial may have been converted, or expressed, in terms of the corresponding angular movement of the sun, in degrees. But all such forcing of historical assumptions to fit results is pointless until you establish the validity of the 23 hours 20 minutes value, and explain why exactly 24 hours must be accounted for.

Furthermore, none of these stories address the question of what the original account said. The English translations say "degrees" but what was the unit of measure of sundial angle used in the original texts? It's rather important to know whether the translators got the unit conversions right.

It is completely unclear, in the versions I've seen, where the "exactly 24 hours" figure comes from, and why there's a compulsion to "account for" that total amount. The account in Joshua says "about a whole day" [KJV]. I strongly suspect that if we ever find the original version of this modern fable, we'll have the answer. It will be something which got left out of the later versions.

One common feature of all versions which I have seen is that, through "proper" reading of the Bible, all of the "lost" time is supposedly accounted for, right down to the minute!

So, the origins of the incident Hill "picked up" (plagiarized) are clear, but his version is embellished with the extra trappings of NASA and computers to give it more credibility with his "modern" (yet gullible) audiences.

Clearly Hill lies when he insists the incident happened at NASA while running a computer program, for he has no evidence for that, and the origins of his story are clearly documented to predate NASA and predate computers. Hill also inflates his connection with NASA from one who maintained two small motors, to a "consultant". Hill lifted the story from Rimmer (1936), who lifted it from Totten (1890), who claimed it was related by Sir Edwin Ball "the great British astronomer". If Ball was so "great", why is he not listed in the usual bibliographic references to scientists of the period? Why do Ball's books not show up in library archives? Is it possible that Ball was a fictional creation of Totten?

I would be happy to receive documentation of any other versions of this story, or responses to it, which may have appeared in print.

The entire account, from Joshua 10.

11 ...the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which dies (?) with hailstones than they whom the children of israel slew with the sword.

12 Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children if Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, moon, in the valley of Ajalon.

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Additional concerns about the fable.

Rimmer says that the skeptical astronomer "made the strange discovery that the earth was twenty-four hours out of schedule! That is to say, there had been twenty-fours lost out of time."

Odd, isn't it that it the "true" discrepancy is assumed to be "exactly" 24 hours, so that the subsequent "discrepancy" of 40 minutes must be accounted for. What astronomical calculation made today, even with computers, would be that accurate (to 40 minutes) extrapolated to a date so far in the past? Quite frankly we are doing good to date an astronomical historical event that long ago to a precision of a few weeks or months, or even years.

How could any astronomical calculation determine that anything was missing out of time? This would require comparison with historical records made by people recording astronomical events and motion of planets using whatever calendar was in use at the time.

If the earth had halted its motion for one day, and the rest of the celestial motions were unaffected, then all subsequent astronomical observations would be "off" 1 day from that time onward. Did astronomers and astrologers notice this in Joshua's time, and mention it in their writings? No, we have no independent records of such observations. Surely professional sky watchers would have been startled if they went out to observe the sun, moon, and planets and found every measurement was "off" by one day, especially if they hadn't heard about Joshua and the Amorites.

OK, then suppose that they didn't record their surprise, or their records haven't survived. Or you may wish to assume that their records weren't accurate enough to show the results of only one day's discrepancy, so no one noticed. In that case, we have absolutely no way, even with the aid of the most accurate computers, to ever discover a "missing" day way back then!

Another wild hypothesis was that astronomers of that time noticed the discrepancy, couldn't figure out what was going on, and fudged their data to make everything come out "right"!

-- Donald E. Simanek