When we want to know the time it is very simple to look at a clock, watch or one of the myriad devices that display the time such as our mobile phones or computers. But when it comes to setting the time, we rely on the internet, speaking clock or somebody else watch; however, how do we know these clocks are right, and who is it that ensures that time is accurate at all?
Traditionally we have based time on Earth in relation to the rotation of the planet—24 hours in a day, and each hour split into minutes and seconds. But, when atomic clocks were developed in the 1950’s it soon became apparent that the Earth was not a reliable chronometer and that the length of a day varies.
In the modern world, with global communications and technologies such as GPS and the internet, accurate time is highly important so ensuring that there is a timescale that is kept truly accurate is important, but who is it that controls global time, and how accurate is it, really?
Global time is known as UTC—coordinated Universal Time. It is based on the time told by atomic clocks but makes allowances for the inaccuracy of the Earth’s spin by having occasional leap seconds added to UTC to ensure we don’t get into a position where time drifts and ends up having no relation to the daylight or night time (so midnight is always at day and noon is in the day).
UTC is governed by a constellation of scientists and atomic clocks all across the globe. This is done for political reasons so no one country has complete control over the global timescale. In the USA, the National Institute for Standards and Time (NIST), helps govern UTC and broadcast a UTC time signal from Fort Collins in Colorado.
While in the UK, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) does the same thing and transmits their UTC signal from Cumbria, England. Other physics labs across the world have similar signals and it is these laboratories that ensure UTC is always accurate.
For modern technologies and computer networks, these UTC transmissions enable computer systems across the globe to be synchronised together. The software NTP (Network Time Protocol) is used to distribute these time signals to each machine, ensuring perfect synchronicity, while NTP time servers can receive the radio signals broadcast by the physics laboratories.