Home Continuing Series Historical Horology Historical Horology: Setting Time By The Radio

Historical Horology: Setting Time By The Radio

505
7

8734085881_27e86df92f_z

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.

 

Thank you for reading this WristWatchReview post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

WristWatchReview is one of the few remaining truly independent watch news outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent watch sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis. We don't play the games the other sites play and we've paid for it when it comes to ad revenue.

We would love for you to support us on Patreon and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The WWR Team

7 COMMENTS

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.