Yuval Noah Harari’s book ‘Sapiens’ is awesome - I found it a great read. One of the things I enjoyed most was his concept of imagined orders, or how large populations of people can share fictions that only exist in our collective imaginations. Harari suggests that trade and conflict work to forge a global, unified empire and the most popular imagined order revolves around thoughts on commerce. These ideals, he thinks, are more popular and held by more people than any of the religions, governments or political orders that have ever existed.

Yuval does have a point, but I was disappointed when he glossed over timekeeping. I often think of the way we keep time as the most dominant cultural influence to have ever existed. It’s bigger than Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Janis Joplin or even The Beatles.

For example, right now, when I look at the clock, it’s 1:53pm on a Tuesday afternoon. This is an idea I can share with the majority of English speaking people and they can imagine roughly when this was written. If I get more specific and say the time is 2018-07-24T13:53:12+10:00 then I can share with an entire planet the idea of when I typed this sentence, as well as dropping a few clues to where it was written.

The modern global time system is all-pervading. It underpins airline schedules, it’s used to settle international trade, it defines when a government sits in session and in some cultures informs when it’s the most appropriate time to pray. So yeah. I do think the human approach to timekeeping is the idea that’s held in the collective imaginations of the most people.

So when I recently travelled to Britain I was super excited to visit the mecca of timekeeping. A place the prime meridian slices in two, and origin of the world’s most unifying cultural revolution. The Royal Observatory.

A picture of the timeball on top of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

See that red ball? The one with the weathervane on top? It’s the time signal that kick started our global system of timekeeping. It’s a time ball that was installed by the Astronomer Royal, John Pond in 1833. At 12:58pm each day, the ball is raised to the top of the pole. Then at precisely 1:00pm the ball drops so that anyone watching can set their clocks. This is exactly what used to happen - ships would wait down in the River Thames below the Royal Observatory and watch for the ball to drop. They would synchronise the time on their naval chronometers and continue out to sea.

Sorry. Wait a second. I got ahead of myself, I need to flesh out a little more backstory.

Measuring the longitude of your position at sea was a notoriously difficult problem in the 18th century. Ships used dead reckoning and their best guesses to figure out their location and the frequent mistakes cost many lives. So in 1714, the British government announced the equivalent of an ‘X Prize’, a lucrative cash incentive for anyone who could devise a system for measuring longitude at sea to within 30 minutes. The prize was eventually won by a carpenter named John Harrison and his H4 marine chronometer, a clock that was accurate for many months at sea*.

So began the practice of ships waiting in the River Thames for the time ball to drop at the Royal Observatory. They could synchronise their super accurate clocks before setting to sea. Then while they were away, the navigator would use the height of the sun in the sky and the time on their chronometer, the same time as their home port, to reliably calculate their longitude.

This timekeeping infrastructure for naval navigation was developed right in the middle of the industrial revolution, and as Harari points out, it was a period where it became increasingly important to keep everyone on the same schedule.

“For example, in a medieval workshop each shoemaker made an entire shoe, from sole to buckle. If one shoe-maker was late for work, it did not stall the others. However, in a modern footwear-factory assembly line, every worker mans a machine that produces just a small part of a shoe, which is then passed on to the next machine. If the worker who operates machine no. 5 has overslept, it stalls all the other machines. In order prevent such calamities, everybody must adhere to a precise timetable.”

But it wasn’t just to keep factory workers turning up on time. Britain was laying down tracks for fast train travel and telegraph lines for near instant communication. It became necessary for there to be a single accurate time to keep these new systems and the nation synchronised. The official time that was kept at the Royal Observatory needed to be transmitted over a further distance to those who couldn’t see the ball drop each day.

So Britain started transmitting the time signal from the Royal Observatory via telegraph. By 1853 a master clock at the Royal Observatory was sending time signals over telegraph along all the principal railways diverging from London. And in two short years, 98% of the clocks in Britain were set to the time signal originating from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

By 1876 the telegraph network had reached the other side of the planet, to Port Lyttelton in New Zealand. They built a time ball of their own and they started signalling Greenwich Mean Time to ships departing on their return journey back to England.

Then in 1924 came radio, and the Royal Observatory started transmitting an electrical signal to the BBC who converted it into an audible tone, The Pips, to mark the precise start of the hour. See what I mean about being bigger than The Beatles? Everyday since 1924 the BBC has aired the time signal originating from the Royal Observatory at the top of most hours as part of their daily radio programming.

In 1927 the massive Rugby Radio Station was finished, complete with 180 metre high aerials each with a normal working voltage of 165,000 volts R.M.S. You can still find one of the aerial tuning coils on display at the Science Museum, London. It’s huge.

A picture of the Rugby Radio station tuning coil on display at the Science Museum, London.

Rugby Radio Station was the first British shortwave radio with enough power to communicate with anywhere in the world. So the General Post Office started broadcasting the time signal from here when the facility opened in 1927. For the first time, no matter where you were in the world you could essentially ‘listen to the ball drop’ on top of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. You could synchronise your clock and lives to the growing heartbeat of a global society.

By this stage Britain had built a whole host of power stations generating electricity to fuel their society and again engineers turned to the time signal emanating from the Royal Observatory. They used the time kept by the Royal Observatory to monitor and correct the frequency of the alternating current they generated and keep the electrical grid synchronised. It wasn’t long after that Henry Warren invented a clock that was kept in sync by the alternating current that was powering it. The ‘Warren Synclock’ was very cheap and popular in England. Ever been to an older school, one built before 1960 and see a strange powerpoint high up on the wall right at the front of the class, where a clock would hang? Yeah. That’s this amazing cultural influence of timekeeping being beamed down power lines and into the minds of children learning the difference between the big and little hands.

Then came 1960. The atomic era of time, when Coordinated Universal Time or (UTC) was introduced. This was all done when the International Standard of units was first published. Yes my American friends. The metric system, even you use part of it. UTC was designed to be a formal specification of time that could be shared among the scientific community. They specifically designed UTC to be interchangeable and compatible with the GMT time signal that originated from the Royal Observatory. All the existing systems that used GMT could safely switch to UTC, because at the outset at least, it was almost like a different name for the same thing.

These days, instead of a clock being based at the Royal Observatory, our time is derived from 260 atomic clocks in 49 locations around the world. It is collated by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France, where it still finds its way into our power and telecommunications networks. Our bus, train and plane timetables.

These days, this heart beat also finds its way into just about every computer and mobile phone on the planet. For mobile phones, ‘NITZ’ or Network Identity and Time Zone is the mechanism that is used. While for computers and servers connected to the Internet, the way cooler NTP or Network Time Protocol is used to automatically synchronise your computer with a worldwide collection of reference atomic clocks.

A cultural revolution that started from watching a ball drop on a building, so ships could navigate? The tick of a clock that has been broadcast on just just about every conceivable medium including the electricity grid? I just love how the beat of time unifies. Looking to find common ground with just about anyone on the planet? Ask them for the time.

* The BBC miniseries called Longitude is an entertaining rendition of John’s achievements.


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