The Measuring of Time

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Measuring the passing of time has been a preoccupation of humans since the dawn of civilization. Broadly speaking, measuring time involves using some form of repetitive cycle to work out how much time has passed. Traditionally this repetitive cycle has been based on the movement of the heavens such as a day being a revolution of the Earth, a month being an entire orbit of the Earth by the moon and a year being earth’s orbit of the sun.

As our technology progressed we have been able to measure time in smaller and smaller increments from sundials that allowed us to count the hours, mechanical clocks that let us monitor the minutes, electronic clocks that let is for the first time accurately record seconds to the current age of atomic clocks where time can be measured to the nanosecond.

With the advancement in chronology that has led to technologies such as NTP clocks, time servers, atomic clocks, GPS satellites and modern global communications, comes with another conundrum: when does a day start and when does it finish.

Most people assume a day is 24 hours long and that it runs from midnight to midnight. However, atomic clocks have revealed to us that a day is not 24 hours and in fact the length of a day varies (and is actually increasing gradually over time).

After atomic clocks were developed there was a call from many sectors to come up with a global timescale. One that uses the ultra precise nature of atomic clocks to measure its passing but also one that takes into account the Earth’s rotation. Failing to account for the variable nature of a day’s length would mean any static timescale would eventually drift with day slowly drifting into night.

To compensate for this the world’s global timescale, called UTC (coordinated universal time) has additional seconds added (leap seconds) to ensure that there is no drift. UTC time is kept true by a constellation of atomic c clocks and it is utilised by modern technologies such as the NTP time server which ensures computer networks all run  the exact same precise time.


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Richard N Williams is a technical author and a specialist in the NTP Server and Time Synchronisation industry. Richard N Williams on Google+