In an age of atomic clocks and the NTP server time keeping is now more accurate then ever with ever increasing precision having allowed many of the technologies and systems we now take for granted.
Whilst timekeeping has always been a preoccupation of mankind, it has only been in the last few decades that true accuracy has been possible thanks to the advent of the atomic clock.
Before atomic time, electrical oscillators like those found in the average digital watch were the most accurate measure of time and whilst electronic clocks like these are far more precise than their predecessors – the mechanical clocks, they can still drift by up to a second a week.
But why does time need to be so precise, after all, how important can a second be? In the day-to-day running of our lives a second isn’t that important and electronic clocks (and even mechanical ones) provide adequate timekeeping for our needs.
In our day-to-day lives a second makes little difference but in many modern applications a second can be an age.
Modern satellite navigation is one example. These devices can pinpoint a location anywhere on earth to within a few metres. Yet they can only do this because of the ultra-precise nature of the atomic clocks that control the system as the time signal sent from the navigation satellites travels at the speed of light which is nearly 300,000 km a second.
As light can travel such a vast distance in a second any atomic clock governing a satellite navigation system that was just one second out it would the positioning would be inaccurate by thousands of miles, rendering the positioning system useless.
There are many other technologies that require similar accuracy and also many of the ways we trade and communicate. Stocks and shares fluctuate up and down every second and global trade requires that everybody all over the world has to communicate using the same time.
Most computer networks are controlled by using a NTP server (Network Time Protocol). These devices allow computer networks to all use the same atomic clock based timescale UTC (coordinated universal time). By utilising UTC via a NTP server, computer networks can be synchronised to within a few milliseconds of each other.