Historical Horology: Setting Time By The Radio

Posted on 08 September 2013 by Patrick Kansa

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If you take a look back at where watches came from, you might stop and find yourself amazed that anything ran on time. Sure, we can have atomic-level precision when it comes to watches today, but back in the “good ol’ days”, accuracy wasn’t measured in milliseconds, that’s for sure. So how did they do it?

This is something I was actually reminded of by our friends over at Schofield, and a post they had on their Facebook page. Starting in 1924, BBC Radio began transmitting a series of beeps that came to be known as the “Six Pips”. These tones were generated by a pair of Dent’s Eight-Day Regulators (model 2016), which they made six of at the top of the hour. The first five pips would sound out for a tenth of a second; the sixth pip, which signified the top of the hour, sounded for half a second.

It’s when folks would hear that sixth tone that they’d push the crowns of their (hacking) watches back in, and go about their day, knowing they had synchronized their watches to the same source that many around them likely had as well. And there you have it, people showing up on time for a meeting or afternoon tea.

How the signal was generated in the 70s

How the signal was generated in the 70s

There is an interesting, slightly darker, take to this story as well. Apparently, commanders of British Polaris nuclear submarines were told to listen to the broadcast on Radio 4 every morning. If they didn’t hear the “Today Programme”, complete with those six pips, that was their signal that something was wrong. It was at that point they were to go and open the on-board safe, and follow instructions for how to attack. Thankfully, we never saw things come to that.

Regardless of the Cold War influences, it’s an interesting story that highlights how people would synchronize their own watches, working around the inherent lack of accuracy, before the times of cellphones and Internet-enabled time services. I know that the BBC one isn’t the only one out there that had been used – feel free to let me know (in the comments, or via email) of other methods that you’ve heard of and/or used yourself. While we may be removed from those days, it never hurts to be appreciative of where our watches have come from.

 

  • http://johnatkin.com John Atkin

    CBC in Canada still has a time signal at 10am generated by the National Research Councl.

    • Patrick Kansa

      Ah – sometimes the “old” ways just last along, making for a simply synch!

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