Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

25.10.2019 Fairfax Tech Talk Column 169


I would argue that I have a desire for extremely accurate data on which to make decisions but some may argue that I have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) tendencies, either way I remember growing up and utilising the services of Australia’s version of the ‘talking clock’. Starting in 1953, Australians could ring 1194 (originally B074) and hear the voice of ‘George’ announce the precise time. The voice was originally provided by Gordon Gow and later by Richard Peach.

I would always like my wristwatch to be accurate to the second so I would ring the service regularly. The cheap digital watches I used growing up were only accurate to within about ten seconds a month so they required regular resetting. I applied the same touch to clocks and later, when installing IT networks, I would set workstation times from the server - but only after I had first set the server time to 1194.

The world moves on so, after sixty-six years of service, the 1194 service has been retired. Before 1953, a call to your local exchange would deliver a live read of the time at the exchange. In 1953, thirty-seven crates arrived from England along with an engineer from the British Post Office to install our first automated speaking clock. Today there are only approximately twenty such services still in operation around the world and despite the fact that one fan in Australia has created a Web site (1194online.com) to keep George announcing the time in Australia, the speaking clock as we know it is gone.

The clock was officially shut down because “it was no longer compatible with new network technologies” but I don’t know what that means. I suspect the main reason that it was shut down was that it was a free service that was of little use now that many people use a mobile phone as their accurate timepiece. Our phones, computers and other connected devices can now receive incredibly accurate times automatically – but from where?

Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIMP) was setup by the Metre Convention in Paris in 1875 and currently has 102 Member and Associate States and Economies. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is set by BIMP based on output from 400 highly precise atomic clocks worldwide. An atomic clock can keep the time accurate to within one second every 300 million years! It does this by measuring the time it takes a Caesium-133 atom to oscillate exactly 9,192,631,770 times. Seems obvious!

Apart from my OCD, why the need for such accuracy?

Much of the technology around the world would cease to operate without an agreed upon accurate central time. GPS systems rely on triangulation to determine precise positions. The power grid needs to coordinate changes across the network at precise times. The mobile phone network would start to fail if different devices had their time out by just a millionth of a second in a day. Even computers with certain security protocols are requiring more accurate times.

To help our need for accuracy, the Network Time Protocol (NTP) launched in 1985 which allows computers and other devices (for example CCTV equipment) to have accurate times for practical purposes (usually within twenty milliseconds). With the inherent latency of the Internet, it uses a clever synchronisation algorithm to adjust for the round-trip delay. There are pools of servers around the world, available for free, to set your computer to this time.

Maybe it was time for ‘George’ to be retired, but I will still miss calling 1194.

Tell me if you would still like to call to hear the time at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson