A History of Atomic Clocks

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The atomic clock is the culmination of mankind’s ability to keep time that has spanned several millennia. Humans have always been preoccupied with keeping track of time ever since early man noticed the regularity of the celestial bodies.

The sun, moon, stars and planets soon became the basis for out timescales with periods of time such as years, months, days and hours based solely on the regulation of the Earth’s rotation.

This worked for thousands of years as a reliable guide to how much time has past but over the last few centuries humans have strode to find even more reliable methods for keeping track of time. Whilst the Sun and celestial bodies were an affective way sundials didn’t work on cloudy days and as the days and night s altered during the year only noon (when the sun is at its highest) could be reasonably relied upon.

The first foray into an accurate timepiece that was not reliant on celestial bodies and was not a simple time (such as a candle taper or water clock) but actually told time over a prolonged period was the mechanical clock.

These first devices dating as far back as the twelfth century were crude mechanisms using a verge and foliot escapement (a gear and lever) to control the ticks of the clock. After a few centuries and a myriad of designs the mechanical clock took its next step forward with the pendulum. The pendulum gave clocks their first true accuracy as it controlled with more precision the ticks of the clock.

However, it wasn’t until the twentieth century when clocks entered the electronic age did they become truly accurate. The digital and electronic clock had its ticks controlled by using the oscillation of a quartz crystal (its changed energy state when a current is based through) which proved so accurate that rarely a second a week was lost.

The development of atomic clocks in the 1950’s used the oscillation of a single atom which generates over 9 billion ticks a second and can maintain precise time for millions of years without losing a second. These clocks now form the basis of our timescales with the entire world synchronised to them using NTP servers, ensuring wholly accurate and reliable time.


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Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the NTP Server and Time Synchronisation industry. Richard N Williams on Google+