Don't Forget to Put a Stitch in it

How Time Is Made

Here’s another timing article that popped up right after Daylight Saving Time ended. (Perhaps a heavy sigh is required here. I’m not sure why the rash of stories has hit is) I’m predisposed to like it, since it’s largely focused on our work, but unlike some articles I’ve critiqued lately, it doesn’t focus on one US timekeeping group and ignore the other one

By law, today the USNO shares the responsibilities for measuring and disseminating time with the Time and Frequency department of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which sits under the US Dept. of Commerce. The USNO sets time for GPS and navigational systems and the Dept. of Defense, while NIST sets the standard for the financial sector and other civilian applications. (NIST receives several billion computer requests per day for this service, and broadcasts time to over 50 million radio clocks, wristwatches, and other clocks with radio receivers.) While there is a lively cooperation between the two agencies charged with telling the time—and the occasional competition over talented PhDs—they mostly operate in different domains: NIST performs most of the cutting-edge research, while USNO focuses on counting and disseminating the time to the military, as a matter of national security.

I don’t even object to the observation that NIST is doing most of the cutting-edge research — they are. Their frequency standard results are amazing. Our research in that area is different, since it focuses on developing continuously-running clocks.