Posted by Stuart on December 26th, 2009
Atomic clocks are a marvel compared to other forms of timekeepers. It would take over 100,000 years for an atomic clock to lose a second in time which is staggering especially when you compare it to digital and mechanical clocks that can drift that much in a day.
But atomic clocks are not practical pieces of equipment to have around the office or home. They are bulky, expensive and require laboratory conditions to operate effectively. But making use of an atomic clock is straightforward enough especially as atomic time keepers like NIST (National Institute of Standards and Time) and NPL (National Physical Laboratory) broadcast the time as told by their atomic clocks on short wave radio.
NIST transmits its signal, known as WWVB from Boulder, Colorado and it is broadcast on an extremely low frequency (60,000 Hz). The radio waves from WWVB station can cover all of the continental United States plus much of Canada and Central America.
The NPL signal is broadcast in Cumbria in the UK and it is transmitted along similar frequencies. This signal, known as MSF is available throughout most of the UK and similar systems are available in other countries such as Germany, Japan and Switzerland.
Radio controlled atomic clocks receive these long wave signals and correct themselves according to any drift the clock detects. Computer networks also take advantage of these atomic clocks signals and use the protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) and dedicated NTP time servers to synchronise hundreds and thousands of different computers.