Why is January 1 1970 the epoch?

Answered by Tom Adger

To be honest, I’ve always found the concept of the Unix epoch fascinating. It’s this arbitrary date that holds so much significance in the world of computing. So, why exactly is January 1, 1970, considered the epoch? Let me explain.

Back in the early days of Unix, engineers needed to establish a common reference point for measuring time across different computer systems. They needed a starting point, a moment when time began in the Unix world. And so, they settled on January 1, 1970.

Now, why this particular date? Well, it wasn’t chosen for any profound reason or deep symbolism. It was simply a matter of convenience. The engineers needed a date that was recent enough to be relevant but far back enough to accommodate the range of time that computers would need to handle.

You see, Unix was designed to work with time in terms of seconds since the epoch. By representing time in this way, it became easier to perform calculations and comparisons. And since Unix was being developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, setting the epoch to January 1, 1970, made sense from a practical standpoint.

It’s worth noting that the Unix epoch has had a lasting impact on the computing world. Many operating systems, databases, and programming languages still use the Unix epoch as their reference point for measuring time. This is because Unix has influenced and shaped the development of these systems over the years.

Now, I must admit, the significance of the Unix epoch goes beyond its technical implications. It has become a part of computing lore and geek culture. It’s not uncommon for programmers to celebrate the “Unix epoch day” on January 1st each year, reminiscing about the origins of their craft and the impact Unix has had on the world.

Personally, I find it fascinating to think about how this seemingly arbitrary date has become such a fundamental aspect of computing. It’s a reminder of the ingenuity and pragmatism of the early Unix engineers who needed a common starting point for measuring time. And so, January 1, 1970, became the epoch, a date that will forever hold a special place in the world of computing.