Unix Time - History

History

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, 1 January 1971, measured in sixtieths of a second".

The User Manual also commented that "the chronologically-minded user will note that 232 sixtieths of a second is only about 2.5 years". Because of this limited range, the epoch was redefined more than once, before the rate was changed to 1 Hz and the epoch was set to its present value. This yielded a range in excess of 130 years, though with more than half the range in the past (see discussion of signedness above).

As indicated by the definition quoted above, the Unix time scale was originally intended to be a simple linear representation of time elapsed since an epoch. However, there was no consideration of the details of time scales, and it was implicitly assumed that there was a simple linear time scale already available and agreed upon. Indeed, the first edition manual's definition doesn't even specify which timezone is used. Several later problems, including the complexity of the present definition, result from Unix time having been defined gradually by usage rather than fully defined from the outset.

When POSIX.1 was written, the question arose of how to precisely define time_t in the face of leap seconds. The POSIX committee considered whether Unix time should remain, as intended, a linear count of seconds since the epoch, at the expense of complexity in conversions with civil time or a representation of civil time, at the expense of inconsistency around leap seconds. Computer clocks of the era were not sufficiently precisely set to form a precedent one way or the other.

The POSIX committee was swayed by arguments against complexity in the library functions, and firmly defined the Unix time in a simple manner in terms of the elements of UTC time. Unfortunately, this definition was so simple that it didn't even encompass the entire leap year rule of the Gregorian calendar, and would make 2100 a leap year.

The 2001 edition of POSIX.1 rectified the faulty leap year rule in the definition of Unix time, but retained the essential definition of Unix time as an encoding of UTC rather than a linear time scale. Also, since the mid-1990s computer clocks have been routinely set with sufficient precision for this to matter, and they have most commonly been set using the UTC-based definition of Unix time. This has resulted in considerable complexity in Unix implementations, and in the Network Time Protocol, to execute steps in the Unix time number whenever leap seconds occur.

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