It’s one of the world’s most iconic land marks. Standing proudly over the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben celebrates its 150th birthday. Yet despite living in an age of atomic clocks and NTP time servers, it is one of the most used timepieces in the world with hundreds of thousands of Londoners relying on its chimes to set their watches to.
Big Ben is actually the name of the main bell inside the clock that creates the quarter hourly chimes but the bell didn’t start chiming when the clock was first built. The clock began keeping time on 31 May 1859, while the bell didn’t strike for the first time until July 11.
Some claim the twelve tonne bell was named after Sir Benjamin Hall the Chief Commissioner of Works who worked on the clock project (and was said to be a man of great girth). Others claim the bell was named after heavyweight boxer Ben Caunt who fought under the moniker Big Ben.
The five-tonne clock mechanism works like a giant wristwatch and is wound three times a week. Its accuracy if in tuned by adding or removing old pennies on the pendulum which is quite far removed from the accuracy that modern atomic clocks and NTP server systems generate with near nanosecond precision.
While Big Ben is trusted by tens of thousands of Londoners to provide accurate time, the modern atomic clock is used by millions of us every day without realising it. Atomic clocks are the basis for the GPS satellite navigation systems we have in our cars they also keep the internet synchronised by way of the NTP time server (Network Time Protocol).
Any computer network can be synchronised to an atomic clock by using a dedicated NTP server. These devices receive the time from an atomic clock, either via the GPS system or specialist radio transmissions.