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By David Rooney on

Electric Time

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of radio time signals. These days, we’re used to the familiar sound of the six pips on the BBC, and we can buy cheap quartz clocks and watches that get magically set right every day by distant transmitters, such as the British service from Cumbria.

Junghans 'Mega 1' radio-controlled wristwatch, 1990 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Whilst experimental radio time transmissions started in the late nineteenth century, it was in May 1910 that Paris’s Eiffel Tower was used to broadcast the world’s first official regular radio time signal (more in Peter Galison’s excellent book).

Eiffel Tower sheet music, c.1888 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Time-by-radio is just one aspect of a revolution in timekeeping that’s taken place over 150 years – the application of electricity.

Electric horology has had a huge impact on all walks of life, from marine navigation to domestic clocks, scientific measurement to clocking-on at work.

'Synchronome' electric master clock, 1930s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

And, as technologies like mobile telephony and satellite navigation converge in consumer kit we can buy on the high street, the future’s looking bright for electric time.

'Navstar' GPS navigation satellite, 1986 (NASA / Science & Society)

I’m chairing the fourth annual Greenwich Time Symposium next month, on Saturday 12 June, at the National Maritime Museum, in association with the Electrical Horology Group.

We’ll be exploring the theme of ‘Electric Time’ – at sea, at work, in the lab, in everyday life and in the future.

Tickets are just £8 for the day, or £6 if you’re a member of the Antiquarian Horological Society. Maybe see you there…