Why does Unix time start at 1970-01-01? Why not 1971-01-01 or any other date?


3 Answers 3


I wouldn't have known the answer except google was there for me:

From Here (needs free subscription):

Linux is following the tradition set by Unix of counting time in seconds since its official "birthday," -- called "epoch" in computing terms -- which is Jan. 1, 1970.

A more complete explanation can be found in this Wired News article. It explains that the early Unix engineers picked that date arbitrarily, because they needed to set a uniform date for the start of time, and New Year's Day, 1970, seemed most convenient.


Unix isn't born in 1970.

The Unix epoch is midnight on January 1, 1970. It's important to remember that this isn't Unix's "birthday" -- rough versions of the operating system were around in the 1960s. Instead, the date was programmed into the system sometime in the early '70s only because it was convenient to do so, according to Dennis Ritchie, one of the engineers who worked on Unix at Bell Labs at its inception.

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    Convenient back then, inconvenient for developers the world over ever since. May 10, 2018 at 6:13
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    @ChrisHalcrow: what would you have chosen as time 0 if you were dmr? And how is the choice inconvenient for developers? The inconvenience is because measuring time in "human" terms (years, months, days, hours/minutes/seconds, time zones, daylight time) is complicated, not because some (arbitrary) $t=0$ instant was chosen.
    – NickD
    Sep 6, 2019 at 13:37
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    @NickD, good prompt for an explanation and good point! I would choose 00:00:00 of CE 0 though, as I'm confident that would make things a little easier to calculate . Please explain what is 'dmr'? Also, ironically, the fact that the OP requires an explanation of why this date was chosen shows that it is inherently confusing for someone to understand the usage of 01/01/70 as a reference date! Sep 10, 2019 at 0:25
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    @ChrisHalcrow: dmr = Dennis Ritchie. Did you calculate the number of seconds from your chosen origin to today? How many bits does it require? The PDP-11 had 16-bit registers and words, but it allowed you to group together two registers and two words to make 32-bit registers and double-words for some operations. That gives you +/- 68 years from your 0 time (or +136 years if your time was unsigned - but dmr chose signed). His choice may be a bit mystifying the first time you see it, but it's a pretty obvious decision given the above...
    – NickD
    Sep 10, 2019 at 1:29
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    @NickD - great explanation! This should be part of the accepted answer - why not move your comment there, and we can delete ours from here? Sep 10, 2019 at 4:08

I like the question :-)

Let me attempt to answer it (ofcourse source: internet)

Unix Time is represented by a 32 bit whole number (an integer) that can be positive or negative (signed). Unix was originally developed in the 60s and 70s so the "start" of Unix Time was set to January 1st 1970 at midnight GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) - this date/time was assigned the Unix Time value of 0. This is what is know as the Unix Epoch.

A 32 bit signed integer can represent whole numbers between -2147483648 and 2147483647. Since Unix Time starts at 0, negative Unix Time values go back in time from the Epoch and positive numbers go forward in time. This means that Unix Time spans from Unix Time value of -2147483648 or 20:45:52 GMT on December 13th 1901 to Unix Time value of 2147483647 or 3:14:07 GMT on January 19 in 2038. These dates represent the beginning, the pre-history and the end of Unix Time.

The end of Unix Time will occur on January 19, 2038 03:14:07 GMT. On January 19, 2038 03:14:08 GMT all computers that still use 32 bit Unix Time will overflow. This is known as the "Year 2038 problem". Some believe this will be a more significant problem than the "Year 2000 problem". The fix for the Year 2038 problem is to store Unix Time in a 64 bit integer. This is already underway in most 64 bit Operating Systems but many systems may not be updated by 2038.

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    Only one paragraph of this actually addresses the question, and it's somewhat inaccurate (the epoch was originally in 1971; it was moved later) Dec 6, 2011 at 20:33
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    Also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_time Dec 6, 2011 at 20:34
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    Thats Right Michael. From Wikipedia: The earliest versions of Unix time had a 32-bit integer incrementing at a rate of 60 Hz, which was the rate of the system clock on the hardware of the early Unix systems. The value 60 Hz still appears in some software interfaces as a result. The epoch also differed from the current value. The first edition Unix Programmer's Manual dated 3 November 1971 defines the Unix time as "the time since 00:00:00, Jan. 1, 1971, measured in sixtieths of a second". Dec 6, 2011 at 20:35
  • @Nikhil I still don't get why 1970, only because Unix was developed that time? Why not 1960? or different month different day?
    – Templar
    Dec 6, 2011 at 20:41
  • @Nikhil or it doesn't really matter? Just first month first day looks better and it was made in 1971 so 1970 would look better too?
    – Templar
    Dec 6, 2011 at 20:44

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