When we consider the most important inventions of the last 100 years, very few people will think of an atomic clock. In fact, if you ask somebody to come up with a top ten of inventions and innovations its doubtful if the atomic clock would figure at all.
Its probably not hard to imagine what people think of as the most life-changing inventions: the Internet, mobile phones, satellite navigation systems, media players etc.
However, nearly all theses technologies rely on accurate and precise time and they would not function without it. The atomic clocks lies at the heart of many of the modern innovations, technologies and applications associated with them.
Let’s take the Internet as an example. The Internet is, in its simplest form, a global network of computers, and this network spans time zones and countries. Now consider some of the things we use the Internet for: online auctions, Internet banking or seat reservation for example. These transactions could not be possible with precise and accurate time and synchronisation.
Imagine booking a seat on an airline at 10am and then another customer tries to book the same seat after you on a computer with a slower clock. The computer only has the time to go on so will consider the person who booked after you to have been the first customer because the clock says so! This is the reason any Internet network that requires time sensitive transactions is connected to a NTP server to receive and distribute an atomic clock time signal.
And for other technologies the atomic clock is even more crucial. Satellite navigation (GPS) is a prime example. GPS (Global Positioning System) works by triangulating atomic clock signals from satellites. Because of the high velocity of radio waves an inaccuracy of 1 second could see a sat-nav device out by 100,000 km.
Other technologies too from mobile phone networks to air traffic control systems are completely reliable on atomic clocks demonstrating how underrated this technology is.