Clocks that Changed Time

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If you’ve ever tried to keep track of time without a watch or clock, you’ll realise just how difficult it can be. Over a few hours, you may get to within half an hour of the right time, but precise time is very difficult to measure without some form of chronological device.

Before the use of clocks, keeping time was incredibly difficult, and even losing track of days of the years became easy to do unless you kept as daily tally. But the development of accurate timepieces took a long time, but several key steps in chronology evolved enabling closer and closer time measurements.

Today, with the benefit of atomic clocks, NTP servers and GPS clock systems, time can be monitored to within a billionth of a second (nanosecond), but this sort of accuracy has taken mankind thousands of years to accomplish.


Stonehenge–ancient timekeeping


With no appointments to keep or a need to arrive at work on time, prehistoric man had little need for knowing the time of day. But when agriculture started, knowing when to plant crops became essential for survival. The first chronological devices such as Stonehenge are believed to have been built for such a purpose.

Identifying the longest and shortest days of the year (solstices) enabled early farmers to calculate when to plant their crops, and probably provided a lot of spiritual significance to such events.


The provided the first attempts at keeping track of time throughout the day. Early man realised the sun moved across the sky at regular paths so they used it as a method of chronology. Sundials came in all sorts of guises, from obelisks that cast huge shadows to small ornamental sundials.

Mechanical Clock

The first true attempt at using mechanical clocks appeared in the thirteenth century. These used escapement mechanisms and weights to keep time, but the accuracy of these early clocks meant they’d lose over an hour a day.

Pendulum Clock

Clocks first became reliable and accurate when pendulums began appearing in the seventeenth century. While they would still drift, the swinging weight of pendulums meant that these clocks could keep track of first minutes, and then the seconds as engineering developed.

Electronic Clocks

Electronic clocks using quartz or other minerals enabled accuracy to parts of a second and enabled scaling down of accurate clocks to wristwatch size. While mechanical watches existed, they would drift too much and required constant winding. With electronic clocks, for the first time, true hassle free accuracy was achieved.

Atomic Clocks

Keeping time to thousands, millions and even billion parts of a second came when the first atomic clocks arrived in the 1950’s. Atomic clocks were even more accurate than the rotation of the Earth so Leap Seconds needed developing to make sure the global time based on atomic clocks, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) matched the path of the sun across the sky.


Leap Second Argument Rumbles On

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The argument about the use of the Leap Second continues to rumble on with astronomers again calling for the abolition of this chronological ‘fudge.’

Galleon's NTS 6001 GPS

The Leap Second is added to Coordinated Universal Time to ensure the global time, coincides with the movement of the Earth. The problems occur because modern atomic clocks are far more precise than the rotation of the planet, which varies minutely in the length of a day, and is gradually slowing down, albeit minutely.

Because of the differences in time of the Earth’s spin and the true time told by atomic clocks, occasional seconds need adding to the global timescale UTC—Leap Seconds. However, for astronomers, leap seconds are a nuisance as they need to keep track of both the Earth’s spin—astronomical time—to keep their telescopes fixed on studied objects, and UTC, which they need as atomic clock source to work out the true astronomical time.

Next year, however, a group of astronomical scientists and engineers, plan to draw attention to the forced nature of Leap Seconds at the World Radiocommunication Conference. They say that as the drift caused by not including leap seconds would take such a long time—probably over a millennia, to have any visible effect on the day, with noon gradually shifting to afternoon, there is little need for Leap Seconds.

Whether Leap Seconds remain or not, getting an accurate source of UTC time is essential for many modern technologies. With a global economy and so much trade conducted online, over continents, ensuring a single time source prevents the problems different time-zones could cause.

Making sure everybody’s clock reads the same time is also important and with many technologies millisecond accuracy to UTC is vital—such as air traffic control and international stock markets.

NTP time servers such as Galleon’s NTS 6001 GPS, which can provide millisecond accuracy using the highly precise and secure GPS signal, enable technologies and computer networks to function in perfect synchronicity to UTC, securely and without error.

Importance of the GPS Antenna

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The global positing system is one of the most used technologies in the modern world. So many people rely on the network for either satellite navigation or time synchronisation. The majority of road users now rely on some form of GPS or mobile phone navigation, and professional drivers are almost completely reliant on them.

And its not just navigation that GPS is useful for. Because GPS satellites contain atomic clocks—it is the time signals these clocks put out that are used by satellite navigation systems to accurately work out positioning—they are used as a primary source of time for a whole host of time sensitive technologies.

Traffic lights, CCTV networks, ATM machines and modern computer networks all need accurate sources of time to avoid drift and to ensure synchronicity.  Most modern technologies, such as computers, do contain internal time pieces but these are only simple quartz oscillators (similar type of clock as used in modern watches) and they can drift. Not only does this lead to the time slowly becoming inaccurate, when devices are hooked up together this drifting can leave machines unable to cooperate as each device may have  a different time.

This is where the GPS network comes in, as unlike other forms of accurate time sources, GPS is available anywhere on the planet, is secure (for a computer network it is received externally to the firewall) and incredibly accurate, but GPS does have one distinct disadvantage.

While available everywhere on the planet, the GPS signal is pretty weak and to obtain a signal, whether for time synchronisation or for navigation, a clear view of the sky is needed. For this reason, the GPS antenna is fundamental in ensuring you get a good quality signal.

As the GPS antenna has to go outdoors, it’s important that it s not only waterproof, able to operate in the rain and other weather elements, but also resistant to the variation in temperatures experienced throughout the year.

One of the leading causes of GPS NTP server failure (the time servers that receive GPS time signals and distribute them around a network using Network Time Protocol) is a failed or failing antenna, so ensuring you GPS antenna is waterproof, and resistant to seasonal temperature changes can eliminate the risk of future time signal failures.

Waterproof GPS Antenna

An End to British Summer Time?

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The new UK government is to look again at the perennial debate about changing the clocks during the summer months from GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) to British Summer Time (BST).

While the move is controversial, with many in Scotland in the north of the UK, unwilling to adopt the change due to the longer dark days of winter they experience over the rest of the country – the move would help synchronise Britain with the rest of Europe.

Despite its positing in the European Union, Britain holds a different timescale to the rest of Europe. People from the UK who travel abroad have to advance their watches an hour every-time they travel to mainland Europe.

In the new proposals, daylight saving time will still continue but the standard winter time will be advanced an hour and a further advancement of an hour for the summer – know as double British Summertime – allowing the UK to have the same time as Europe.

However, despite the problems such a change would have to people; technology will not be affected by any alteration in daylight saving time.

UTC Time

Technology, such as computer networks, all use a universal time – UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is a global timescale, kept true by an international conglomeration of atomic clocks. This means whether you have a UK based computer network, or a one on the other side of the world, to the technologies – the time is the same.

Most technologies receive this time from an atomic clock source using devices known as NTP servers (after the time protocol: Network Time Protocol). NTP servers take advantage of the atomic clocks onboard GPS satellites so they can not only supply an accurate source of time but they can assure that the time source never drifts.

Other methods of getting an atomic clock source of time include using medium wave transmissions broadcast by places like the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) or the American National Institute for Standards and Time.

NTP servers ensure that no matter where you are in the world the source of time your computers and technology utilise is always Coordinated Universal Time – no matter what the time of year.

GPS Time Servers Precise Time all the Time

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Keeping computer networks accurate and synchronised can’t be emphasised highly enough. Accurate time is essential in the modern global economy as computer networks across the globe are required to constantly talk to each other.

Failing to ensure a network is accurate and precise can lead to headache after headache: transactions can fail, data can get lost, and error logging and debugging can be virtually impossible.

Atomic Clocks

Atomic clocks form the basis of the global timescale – UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). UTC is used across the globe by technology and computer networks enabling the entire commercial and technological world to communicate in synchronicity together.

But as atomic clocks are highly technical (and expensive) pieces of hardware that require a team of technicians to control – where do people get a source of such accurate time?

The answer is quite simple; atomic clock timestamps are transmitted by physics laboratories and are avlaible from a whole host of sources – kept accurate by the time software NTP (Network Time Protocol).

NTP Time Servers

The most common location for sources of atomic clock generated UTC is the internet. A whole host of online time servers are avlaible for synchronisation but these can vary in their accuracy and precision. Furthermore, using a source of internet time can create vulnerabilities in the network as the firewall has to allow these timestamps through and therefore can be utilised by viruses and malicious software.

By far the most secure and accurate method of receiving a source of atomic clock generated time is to utilise the GPS network (Global Positioning System).

GPS time servers are unique in that as long as there is a clear view of the sky they can receive a source of time – anywhere on the globe, 24 hours-a-day, 365 days a year.

They are also highly accurate with a single GPS NTP time server able to synchronise entire networks to just a few milliseconds of UTC.

Using Internet Time for Computer Synchronization

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Ensuring your network is synchronized is a vital part of modern computing. Failure to do so, and having different machines telling different times is a recipe for disaster and can cause untold problems, not to mention making it almost impossible to debug or log errors.

And it is not just your own network you need to synchronize to either. With so many networks talking to each other, it is important that all networks synchronize to the same time-scale.

UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) is just such a global timescale. It is controlled by an international constellation of atomic clocks and enables computers all over the world to talk to each other in perfect synchronicity.

But how do you sync to UTC?

The internet is awash with sources of internet time. Most modern operating systems, especially in the Windows flavour, are set up to do this automatically (just by clicking the time/date tab on the clock menu). The computer will then regularly check the time server (usually at Microsoft or NIST, although others can be used) and adjust the computer to ensure its time matches.

Most internet time servers are known as stratum 2 devices. This means they take the time from another device but where does that get the time from?

NTP time servers

The answer is that somewhere on the stratum tree there will be a stratum 1 device. This will be a time server that receives the time direct from an atomic clock source. Often this is by GPS but there are radio referenced alternatives in several countries. These stratum 1 NTP (Network Time Protocol) time servers then provide the stratum 2 devices with the correct time – and its these devices we get our internet time from.

Drawbacks to Internet time

There are several drawbacks to relying on the Internet for time synchronisation. Accuracy is one consideration. Normally, a stratum 2 device will provide ample enough precision for most networks; however, for some users who require high levels of accuracy or deal in a lot of time sensitive transactions a stratum 2 time server may not be accurate enough.

Another problem with internet time servers is that they require an open port in the firewall. Keeping the NTP access on UDP port 123 open all the time could lead to security issues, especially as internet time sources can’t be authenticated or guaranteed.

Using a Stratum 1 NTP Time server

Stratum 1 NTP time servers are easily installed on most networks. Not only will they provide a higher accurate source of time but as they receive the time externally (from GPS or radio) they are highly secure and can’t be hijacked by malicious users or viral software.

Time to get accurate Atomic clock time servers for computer networks

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Accurate and precise time is increasingly becoming a necessity for computer systems. From corporate networks to public service technologies such as ATMs, traffic lights or CCTV cameras – precise time is what keeps them ticking.

Inaccurate or unsynchronised time is the root cause for many technology breakdowns and failures.  For instance, failing to synchronize a traffic lights system can lead to all sorts of confusion of the lights change at the wrong time – and the consequences for systems belonging to industries such as air traffic control could be even worse.

And even a standard computer network such as those used in most offices requires accurate synchronisation to prevent errors, enable debugging and to ensure the system is secure.

Most system administrators are now aware of the importance of accurate and precise time synchronisation but getting a source of accurate time is often where many people make mistakes.

Many network administrators are aware of the time protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol) which is used to ensure accurate synchronisation between computers.

However, many administrators make the mistake of using a source of time from across the internet to distribute with NTP – a common pitfall that can have disastrous consequences.

The internet is not the best source of tine. While it is true, many online NTP servers are available as a source of atomic time or UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) but are they accurate. The truth is it is almost impossible to know. Internet time sources can be affected by the distance of the client (the network) from the time source – it also can’t be authenticated by NTP.

Even more important, internet time sources operate through the firewall which can allow the time signal to be hijacked by malicious programs.

The only secure and accurate method of synchronising a computer network or other technology system is to use an NTP server. These devices receive an external atomic clock time signal often by GPS or even by radio transmissions.

These signals are come direct from atomic clocks so are highly accurate they also can’t be hijacked as they are not connected to the internet.

Do I Really Need A NTP Server For Time Synchronisation?

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Time synchronisation is a critical aspect to modern computing, especially when computers are on a network or need to communicate with other networked machines.

Timestamps are crucial for computers to acknowledge when an event occurred and it is the only information they have to ascertain if an event has occurred. Without accurate time stamps the consequences can include:

• Loss of data
• Difficult to log errors
• Difficult to debug
• Failure to save
• Time sensitive applications may fail

Modern operating systems like Windows 7 have automatic synchronisation software already installed. W32Time has been a part of Microsoft’s different generations of operating systems for some time but in Windows 7 it is set to be automatically on (Rather than the user having to set it) – synchronising your PC straight out of the box.

With such NTP (Network Time Protocol) based synchronisation available by using internet time servers (normally Microsoft and NIST) many people may wonder if a dedicated time server is still required.

Problems with Internet Time Servers

There are several drawbacks to using this Internet time as a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time – the global timescale often referred to as GMT).

The first and most important drawback to internet time servers is their location through the firewall. Having to rely on a source of time across the internet means keeping the TCP port open – a crucial security weakness that can be used by malicious users or bots.

Another downside to internet time servers is their lack of guaranteed accuracy. While places like NIST (National Institute for Standards and Time) and Microsoft have reliable and accurate time servers – the accuracy can be dependent on how far away you are peering from. And many other time servers available as a source of internet time are less reliable – and as NTP can’t authenticate a time signal from across the internet – it can be difficult to assess.

Benefits of an External NTP Server

Dedicated external NTP servers are far more secure. They receive their tie from GPS satellites of Long Wave transmissions so the signals can’t be intercepted by computer hackers or malicious software. Also, NTP can authenticate the signals ensuring you know where they are coming from and how accurate they are.

With time being so important on modern networked computers, taking a risk with internet time may cost a lot more than any minor investment in a dedicated NTP time server.

Understanding GPS Time in Relation to UTC

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Accurate time is so important for modern computer systems that it is now unimaginable for any network administer to configure a computer system without any regard to synchronisation.

Ensuring all machines are running an accurate and precise time, and that the entire network is synchronised together, will prevent problems arising such as data loss, failure of time sensitive transactions and enable debugging and error management which can be near impossible on networks that lack synchronicity.

There are many sources of accurate time for use with NTP time servers (Network Time Protocol). NTP servers tend to use time that is controlled by atomic clocks to ensure accuracy, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each system.

Ideally as a source of time you want it to be a source of UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as this is the international time standard as used by computer systems worldwide. But UTC is not always accessible but there is an alternative.

GPS time

GPS time is the time as relayed by the atomic clocks on board GPS satellites. These clocks form the basic technology for the Global Positioning System and their signals are what are used to work out positing information.

But GPS time signals can also provide an accurate source of time for computer networks – although strictly speaking GPS time does differ to UTC.

No Leap Seconds

GPS time is broadcast as an integer. The signal contains the number of seconds from when the GPS clocks were first turned on (January 1980).

Originally GPS time was set to UTC but since GPS satellite have been in space the last thirty years, unlike UTC, there has been no increase to account for leap seconds – so currently GPS is running exactly 17 seconds behind UTC.


Whilst GPS time and UTC are not strictly the same as they were originally based on the same time and only the lack of leap seconds not added to GPS makes the difference, and as this is exact in seconds, conversion of GPS time is simple.

Many GPS NTP servers will convert GPS time to UTC time (and local time if you so wish) ensuring you can always have an accurate, stable, secure and reliable source of atomic clock based time.

Common Internet Time Synchronisation Issues

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Keeping the clock on a PC system synchronised is important for many systems, networks and users that need time accuracy for applications and transactions. Nearly everything on a modern computer system is time reliant so when synchronisation fails all sorts of issues can arise from data getting lost and debugging becoming near impossible.

There are several methods of synchronising a computer system’s clock but the majority of them rely on the time synchronisation protocol NTP (Network Time Protocol).

By far the most common method is to make use of the myriad of online NTP time servers that relay the UTC time (Coordinated Universal Time). However, there are many common issues in using internet based time servers – here are some of them:

Can’t access the Internet time server

A common occurrence with Internet time sources is the inability to access them. This can be caused by several reasons:

• Too much traffic trying to access the server
• Website is down
• Your connection is down

The time from the time server is innacuurate

Most online sources of time are what are known as stratum 2 time servers. This means they get their time from another time server (stratum 1) that it connected to an atomic clock (stratum 0). If there is an error with the stratum 1 device the stratum 2 device will be wrong (and every device that is trying to get the time from it).

The time server is leading to security problems with the firewall

Another common problem caused by the fact that all online time servers need access through your firewall. Unfortunately this gives the opportunity for malicious users to make use of this back door into your system.

Eliminating Time Server Issues

Internet time sources are neither guaranteed to be accurate, reliable or secure so for any serious time synchronisation requirements an external source of time should be used. NTP time servers that plug into a network and receive the time from GPS or radio sources are a much more secure and reliable alternative. These NTP servers are also highly secure as they do not operate across the Internet.