Nearly every device seems to have a clock attached to it these days. Computers, mobile phones and all the other gadgets we use are all good sources of time. Ensuring that no matter where you are a clock is never that far away – but it wasn’t always this way.
Clock making, in Europe, started around the fourteenth century when the first simple mechanical clocks were developed. These early devices were not very accurate, losing perhaps up to half an hour a day, but with the development of pendulums these devices became increasingly more accurate.
However, the first mechanic al clocks were not the first mechanical devices that could tell and predict time. Indeed, it seems Europeans were over fifteen hundred years late with their development of gears, cogs and mechanical clocks, as the ancients had long ago got there first.
Early in the twentieth century a brass machine was discovered in a shipwreck (Antikythera wreck) off Greece, which was a device as complex as any clock made in Europe up in the mediaeval period. While the Antikythera mechanism is not strictly a clock – it was designed to predict the orbit of planets and seasons, solar eclipses and even the ancient Olympic Games – but is just as precise and complicated as Swiss clocks manufactured in Europe in the nineteenth century.
While Europeans had to relearn the manufacture of such precise machines, clock making has moved on dramatically since then. In the last hundred or so years we have seen the emergence of electronic clocks, using crystals such as quartz to keep time, to the emergence of atomic clocks that use the resonance of atoms.
Atomic clocks are so accurate they won’t drift by even a second in a hundred thousand years which is phenomenal when you consider that even quartz digital clocks will drift several seconds n a day.
While few people will have ever seen an atomic clock as they are bulky and complicated devices that require teams of people to keep them operational, they still govern our lives.
Much of the technologies we are familiar with such as the internet and mobile phone networks, are all governed by atomic clocks. NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol) are used to receive atomic clock signals often broadcast by large physics laboratories or from the GPS (Global Positioning System) satellite signals.
NTP servers then distribute the time around a computer network adjusting the system clocks on individual machines to ensure they are accurate. Typically, a network of hundreds and even thousands of machines can be kept synchronised together to an atomic clock time source using a single NTP time server, and keep them accurate to within a few milliseconds of each other (few thousandths of a second).