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In Canada, as with other countries a beep electronic sound punctuated the correct time. In Canada, this is called the long dash because of its extended tone. In the UK and Ireland I have heard it called the ‘pips‘ three short beeps instead.

Consistency and precision

Before we had precise time mediated by a beep; consistency was still important. The time was marked in different ways:

  • Church bells
  • Farm estate clocks
  • Railway station clocks
  • Factory sirens

While this time would be consistent on a daily or weekly cycle, it gradually became apparent that it could differ from one town to another. Accurate time was crucial for mariners looking to gain an understanding of how east or west they were – their position in terms of longitude . You compare the position of the sun in the sky, how far it is on its access at midday GMT time and then back calculate your position. But marine chronometers were not commonplace onshore.


Half a century after the development of the chronometer, George Stephenson’s work developing the steam locomotive started what we now think of as railways and the Bessemer steel process allowed for mass production of railway tracks. Railway timetables were the point at which widespread consistency and precision were needed, with a country (or at least a time zone in the case of large countries like Russia, Canada and the United States) having a common time.


Radio programmes carrying some sort of time signals allowed a country to use watches and clocks that weren’t chronometer accurate that could be periodically compared and reset against the beep of the time signal.

The delay in propagating a time signal in most countries was not meaningful. The beep also featured on speaking clock services where a caller could dial in to a telephone line at a time of their choosing to receive the precise time to the second, every ten seconds. BT still provides the service in the UK. They are used less frequently with the rise of quartz watches, mobile phones and computers.

The Angelus

In Ireland, Roman Catholic heritage combined with the need for a time signal meant that the bells were rung on TV and radio at 12 noon and 6pm for The Angelus. When the Angelus started on the radio, Roman Catholic households would be able to mutter the prayer to themselves. Having it on the radio also served a socio-political purpose as well as a time marking purpose in the Ireland of Eamon DeValera where piousness was a key part of the Irish identity the young country looked to foster.

Modern Ireland, particularly in the urban areas is a very different, more diverse Ireland than the rural-dominated Ireland of DeValera

RTÉ aside

Before Ireland went to a 24 hour broadcast schedule on RTÉ radio 1, the station turned on at 5:30am with an electronically created interval signal that was a more tuneful version of the beep.

This repeated at regular intervals until 6am when the announcer would the start of programming. It often marked my time to get up for my milk round or shift work.

It still appears at the same time, announcing the transition of overnight programming shared with RTÉ Gold to radio one’s first programme of the day Rising Time.

Technology systems

Accuracy was improved by the invention of the first atomic clock in 1955. This built on theoretical work that had been done from the 1930s onwards in the area of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) devices. By the mid-1960s Hewlett-Packard were building 19″ rack mountable atomic clocks, eventually it became small enough to squeeze on a satellite. By 2004, researchers had built an atomic clock mechanism the size of a coffee bean.

Atomic clock time codes are a crucial part of global positioning satellite signals. Mobile operators have used these. Then there are several radio stations around the world on shortwave and long wave transmitters who send out a regular time code. These timecodes are used to correct clocks and watches including Casio watches with the ‘Multiband 6 feature‘.

Prior to widespread adoption of the internet, computer network workstations, be they Mac or PC would have different times on them, usually set by the user or the system administrator at the computer. While mobile phone networks could distribute accurate time signals to mobile phones, they often didn’t. Some networks supported the summer time transfer, others didn’t.

The internet and workstation grade PC operating systems provided an opportunity for widespread use of network time protocol servers. Sudden your Mac and later on your iPhone and iPad would all have the same time.

Internet time problems

The internet, while providing a format for distributing relatively accurate time to machines has presented its own problem propagating time to humans. There can be a substantial amount of time difference between different ways of receiving broadcast content. The difference is most apparent between internet streaming and terrestrial broadcast radio and television. A good deal of this is down to the nature of best effort packet networks that support the modern web. Video and audio are buffered to provide a seamless experience rather than a precise experience. So time signals on IPTV and audio streamed radio are indicative at best rather than having precision.