Archive for July, 2011

75 Years of the Speaking Clock

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Britain’s speaking clock celebrates its 75th birthday this week, with the service still providing the time to over 30 million callers a year.

The service, available by dialling 123 on any BT landline (British Telecom), began in 1936 when the General Post Office (GPO) controlled the telephone network. Back then, most people used mechanical clocks, which were prone to drift. Today, despite the prevalence of digital clocks, mobile phones, computers and a myriad number of other devices, the BT speaking clock still provides the time to 30 million callers a year, and other networks implement their own speaking clock systems.

Much of the speaking clock’s continuing success is perhaps down to the accuracy that it keeps. The modern speaking clock is accurate to five milliseconds (5/1000ths of a second), and kept precise by the atomic clock signals provided by NPL (National Physical Laboratory) and the GPS network.

But the announcer declaring the time ‘after the third stroke’ provides people with a human voice, something other time-telling methods don’t provide, and may have something to do with why so many people still use it.

Four people have had the honour of providing the voice for the speaking clock; the current voice of the BT clock is Sara Mendes da Costa, who has provided the voice since 2007.

Of course, many modern technologies require an accurate source of time. Computer networks that need to keep synchronised, for security reasons and to prevent of errors, require a source of atomic clock time.

Network time servers, commonly called NTP servers after Network Time Protocol that distributes the time across the computers on a network, use either GPS signals, which contain atomic clock time signals, or by radio signals broadcast by places like NPL and NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) in the US.

Clock to Run for 10,000 Years

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

The construction of clock, designed to tell the time for 10,000 years, is underway in Texas. The clock, when built, will stand over 60 metres tall and will have a clock face nearly three metres across.

Built by a non-profit organisation, the Long Now Foundation, the clock is being built so as to, not only still be standing in 10,000 years, but also still be telling the time.

Consisting of a 300kg gear wheel and a 140kg steel pendulum, the clock will tick every ten seconds and will feature a chime system that will allow 3.65 million unique chime variations—enough for 10,000 years of use.

Inspired by ancient engineering projects of the past, such as the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids—objects designed to last, the clock’s mechanism will feature state-of-the-art materials that don’t require lubrication of servicing.

However, being an mechanical clock, the Long Now Clock will not be very accurate and will require resetting to avoid drift otherwise the time in 10,000 years will not represent the time on Earth.

Even atomic clocks, the world’s most accurate clocks, require help in preventing drift, not because the clocks themselves drift—atomic clocks can remain accurate to a second for 100 million years, but the Earth’s rotation is slowing.

Every few years an extra second is added to a day. These Leap Seconds inserted on to UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) prevent the timescale and the movement of the Earth from drifting apart.

UTC is the global timescale that governs all modern technologies from satellite navigation systems, air traffic control and even computer networks.

While atomic clocks are expensive laboratory-based machines, receiving the time from an atomic clock is simple, requiring only a NTP time server (Network Time Protocol) that uses either GPs or radio frequencies to pick up time signals distributed by atomic clock sources. Installed on a network, and NTP time server can keep devices running to within a few milliseconds of each other and of UTC.



How Long is a Day?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

A day is something most of us take for granted, but the length of a day is not as simple as we may think.

A day, as most of us know, is the time it takes for the Earth to spin on its axis. Earth takes 24 hours to do one complete revolution, but other planets in our solar system have day lengths far different to ours.

Galleon NTS 6001

The largest planet, Jupiter, for instance, takes less than ten hours to spin a revolution making a Jovian day less than half of that of Earth, while a day on Venus is longer than its year with a Venusian day 224 Earth days.

And if you think of those plucky astronauts on the international Space Station, hurtling around the Earth at over 17,000 mph, a day for them is just 90 minutes long.

Of course, few of us will ever experience a day in space or on another planet, but the 24-hour day we take for granted is not as steadfast as you may think.

Several influences govern the revolution of the Earth, such as the movement of tidal forces and the effect of the Moon’s gravity. Millions of years ago, the Moon was much closer to Earth as it is now, which caused much higher tides, as a consequence the length of Earth’s day was shorter—just 22.5 hours during the time of the dinosaurs. And ever since the earth has been slowing.

When atomic clocks were first developed in the 1950’s, it was noticed that the length of a day varied. With the introduction of atomic time, and then Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), it became apparent that the length of a day was gradually lengthening. While this change is very minute, chorologists decided that to ensure equilibrium of UTC and the actual time on Earth—noon signifying when the sun is at its highest above the meridian—additional seconds needed to be added, once or twice a year.

So far, 24 of these ‘Leap Seconds’ have been since 1972 when UTC first became the international timescale.

Most technologies dependent on UTC use NTP servers like Galleon’s NTS 6001, which receives accurate atomic clock time from GPS satellites. With an NTP time server, automatic leap second calculations are done by the hardware ensuring all devices are kept accurate and precise to UTC.


Clocks that Changed Time

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

If you’ve ever tried to keep track of time without a watch or clock, you’ll realise just how difficult it can be. Over a few hours, you may get to within half an hour of the right time, but precise time is very difficult to measure without some form of chronological device.

Before the use of clocks, keeping time was incredibly difficult, and even losing track of days of the years became easy to do unless you kept as daily tally. But the development of accurate timepieces took a long time, but several key steps in chronology evolved enabling closer and closer time measurements.

Today, with the benefit of atomic clocks, NTP servers and GPS clock systems, time can be monitored to within a billionth of a second (nanosecond), but this sort of accuracy has taken mankind thousands of years to accomplish.


Stonehenge–ancient timekeeping


With no appointments to keep or a need to arrive at work on time, prehistoric man had little need for knowing the time of day. But when agriculture started, knowing when to plant crops became essential for survival. The first chronological devices such as Stonehenge are believed to have been built for such a purpose.

Identifying the longest and shortest days of the year (solstices) enabled early farmers to calculate when to plant their crops, and probably provided a lot of spiritual significance to such events.


The provided the first attempts at keeping track of time throughout the day. Early man realised the sun moved across the sky at regular paths so they used it as a method of chronology. Sundials came in all sorts of guises, from obelisks that cast huge shadows to small ornamental sundials.

Mechanical Clock

The first true attempt at using mechanical clocks appeared in the thirteenth century. These used escapement mechanisms and weights to keep time, but the accuracy of these early clocks meant they’d lose over an hour a day.

Pendulum Clock

Clocks first became reliable and accurate when pendulums began appearing in the seventeenth century. While they would still drift, the swinging weight of pendulums meant that these clocks could keep track of first minutes, and then the seconds as engineering developed.

Electronic Clocks

Electronic clocks using quartz or other minerals enabled accuracy to parts of a second and enabled scaling down of accurate clocks to wristwatch size. While mechanical watches existed, they would drift too much and required constant winding. With electronic clocks, for the first time, true hassle free accuracy was achieved.

Atomic Clocks

Keeping time to thousands, millions and even billion parts of a second came when the first atomic clocks arrived in the 1950’s. Atomic clocks were even more accurate than the rotation of the Earth so Leap Seconds needed developing to make sure the global time based on atomic clocks, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) matched the path of the sun across the sky.