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Base Date? 17-Nov-1858? Julian Calendar? Gregorian

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The Question is:

I understand that 17-NOV-1858 is the VMS system base date; however, what was
the significance of this choice?  I've been told that it has something to do
with Charles Babbage, the "father" of the computer.

The Answer is :

 Brief History of the Gregorian Calendar
   As decreed by Pope Gregory XIII, October 4, 1582, was
   followed by October 15, 1582. Thus ended the 1600-year
   reign of the Julian calendar upon which the Gregorian
   calendar is based, and thus began the calendar which
   DECwindows Calendar uses to measure time.
   Calendars based on sun and moon movement were used even
   by the ancients, but the first reasonably accurate one was
   the 365-day cycle calculated by the Greek Sosigenes. This
   was the calendar authorized by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. The
   Julian calendar (not to be confused with the Julian period;
   see below) had 3 years of 365 days each, followed by a fourth
   year of 366 days.
   The 365-day cycle was more accurately defined in 730 AD
   by the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk, who shortened
   the time by 11 minutes, 14 seconds. This accumulates to a
   whole day's error every 128 years, or a little more than 3
   days every 400 years. This being the Dark Ages, nothing was
   done to adjust the Calendar, despite Roger Bacon sending a
   note to Pope Clement IV, informing him of the drifting of the
   date for the vernal equinox. Later, Pope Sixtus IV did become
   convinced that another reform was needed and called the
   German astronomer Regiomontanus to Rome to advise him.
   Unfortunately, Regiomontanus died of the plague shortly
   thereafter and the plans died with him.
   Thursday, October 4, 1582 was the next time the calendar
   was adjusted.  This last day of the Julian calendar was
   followed by Friday, October 15. So began the Gregorian
   calendar that we use today, named after Pope Gregory XIII.
   He commissioned the mathematician Father Christopher
   Clavius, S.J., to do the necessary calculations, having been
   authorized to reform the calendar by the Council of Trent in
   The Vatican librarian Aloysius Giglio provided a formula for
   long-range accuracy. He suggested that every fourth year
   be a leap year, except for century years that are not divisible
   by 400. Thus 1700, 1800, and 1900 would not be leap years,
   but 2000 would be, because 2000 is divisible by 400. This
   rule eliminated 3 leap years every 4 centuries, making the
   calendar sufficiently correct for most ordinary purposes.
 Julian Period
   Astronomers use the Julian period because it is convenient
   to express long time intervals in days rather than months,
   weeks and years.  It was devised by Joseph Scaliger, in
   1582, who named it after his father Julius, thus creating
   the confusion between the Julian (Caesar) calendar and the
   Julian (Scaliger) period.
   Julian Day 1 began at 12:00 noon, January 1, 4713 B.C. This
   date was thought by some to correspond approximately to the
   beginning of the universe. Certainly it predated any known
   astronomical events known in the 16th century without
   resorting to negative times. Scaliger decided on the actual
   date on the grounds that it was the most recent coincidence
   of three major chronological cycles:
    -  The 28-year solar cycle, after which dates in the Julian
        calendar (for example September 27) return to the same
        days of the week (for example Tuesday).
    -  The 19-year lunar cycle, after which phases of the moon
        return to the same dates of the year.
    -  The 15-year indiction cycle, used in ancient Rome for tax
   It takes 7980 years to complete the cycle. Noon of January 1,
   1988, marks the beginning of Julian Day 2447161.
   The Julian period is also of interest because of its use as a
   time base by the OpenVMS operating system.
 ULTRIX and Digital UNIX Time Origins
   The beginning of time for ULTRIX and Digital UNIX systems is:
        Thursday January 1 00:00:00 1970
   The reason for this date being chosen is that this was the year
   that UNIX, the ``parent'' of ULTRIX, was first released.
   Thus dates prior to 1970 are BU; 1970 and later dates are AU.
  OpenVMS and the Julian Period
   Why OpenVMS regards November 17, 1858 as the beginning
   of time...
   The modified Julian date adopted by SAO (Smithsonian
   Astrophysical Observatory) for satellite tracking is Julian Day
   2400000, which turns out to be November 17, 1858.
   SAO started tracking satellites with an 8K (nonvirtual) 36-bit
   IBM 704 in 1957 when Sputnik went into orbit. The Julian
   day was 2435839 on January 1, 1957. This is 11225377 octal,
   which was too big to fit into an 18-bit field. With only 8K
   of memory, the 14 bits left over by keeping the Julian date
   in its own 36-bit word would have been wasted. They also
   needed the fraction of the current day (for which 18 bits gave
   enough accuracy), so it was decided to keep the number of
   days in the left 18 bits and the fraction of a day in the right
   18 bits of one word.
   Eighteen bits allows the truncated Julian day (the SAO day)
   to grow as large as 262143, which from November 17, 1858,
   allowed for 7 centuries. Possibly, the date could only grow as
   large as 131071 (using 17 bits), but this still covers 3 centuries
   and leaves the possibility of representing negative time. The
   1858 date preceded the oldest star catalogue in use at SAO,
   which also avoided having to use negative time in any of the
   satellite tracking calculations.

answer written or last revised on ( 19-APR-1999 )

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