Finding out what the time is, is something we all take for granted. Clocks are everywhere and a glance at a wristwatch, clock tower, computer screen or even a microwave will tell us what the time is. However, telling the time has not always been that easy.
Clocks didn’t arrive until the middle ages and their accuracy was incredibly poor. True time telling accuracy didn’t arrive until after the arrival of the electronic clock in the nineteenth century. However, many of the modern technologies and applications that we take for granted in the modern world such as satellite navigation, air traffic control and internet trading require a precision and accuracy that far exceeds an electronic clock.
Atomic clocks are by far the most accurate time telling devices. They are so accurate that the world’s global timescale that is based on them (Coordinated Universal Time) has to be occasionally adjusted to account for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation. These adjustments take the form of additional seconds known as leap seconds.
Atomic clock accuracy is so precise that not even a second of time is lost in over a million years whilst an electronic clock by comparison will lose a second in a week.
But is this accuracy really necessary? When you look at technologies such as global positioning then the answer is yes. Satellite navigation systems like GPS work by triangulating time signals generated by atomic clocks onboard the satellites. As these signals are transmitted at the speed of light they travel nearly 100,000 k m each second. Any inaccuracy in the clock by even a thousandth of a second could see the positioning information out by miles.
Computer networks that have to communicate with each other across the globe have to ensure they are running not just accurate time but also are synchronised with each other. Any transactions conducted on networks without synchronisation can result in all sorts of errors.
Fort his reason computer networks use NTP (Network Time Protocol) and network time servers often referred to as an NTP server. These devices receive a timing signal from an atomic clock and distribute it amongst a network in doing so a network is ensured to be as accurate and precise as possible.