Extreme Amateur Timekeeping: from Harrison to Einstein


I spoke at the NAWCC 2013 "Time For Everyone" Symposium in Pasadena, CA. Here is a copy of the presentation:

Extreme Amateur Timekeeping: from Harrison to Einstein (PowerPoint slides/PDF, 5.9 MB)


No one paid Harrison to be interested in clocks. Einstein developed relativity theory in his spare time. What drives the passion for clocks, the pursuit of precision, a deep interest in time?

Today, technology companies and national laboratories work with precise time. But lets not forget that time, the mystery of time, the creation of timekeepers, the measurement of time, is an intrinsically human passion, one that can be pursued and enjoyed by anyone as a hobby. Tom Van Baak's presentation focuses on vintage pendulum and modern atomic clocks, on what professionals do well and what amateurs can do with great enthusiasm.

Pendulum clocks have deep roots in history, physics, and technology. In this presentation, the amazing performance of three famous pendulum clocks is analyzed using modern techniques. Many modern clock enthusiasts have tried to duplicate the accuracy of these clocks and none has yet succeeded, in spite of using modern design techniques, materials, and electronics. How can this be? Furthermore, why is it that even the best pendulum clock ever made is still inaccurate, because of the orbit of the Moon and the rotation of the Earth?

Atomic clocks have long since replaced pendulum clocks for accurate timing and find applications in nearly every aspect of modern life. Once exotic and only used by NASA and national laboratories, atomic clocks are now so common they can be found on eBay. This has opened up a new world to DIY (do it yourself) home experimenters. Levels of precision that were unheard of in our youth are now one click away. There is an active community of amateur timekeepers, or as Wired magazine called us, time hackers, who delight in and explore the amazing world of atomic clocks.

The talk concludes with a first-hand description of Project GREAT, perhaps the ultimate DIY clock experiment. Van Baak methodically selected three of his best portable cesium clocks, outfitted the family minivan (with his wife's permission) as a traveling time laboratory, and drove with his three children up the highest mountain in Washington State. After staying on Mt. Rainier for a long weekend they returned home to compare the traveling clocks against several atomic clocks left at home. Measurements confirmed that the clocks returned 22 nanoseconds ahead in time. Just as Einstein predicted, time runs slower at sea level than it does at altitude; gravity warps time.

We are now entering the era when amateurs can own atomic clocks, when precision timekeeping is a DIY activity, and when relativity is child's play. The mystery and magic of time is owned and shared by all: nations and amateurs, scientists and children. From the passion of Harrison to the predictions of Einstein, Van Baak's hope is to inspire a new generation to appreciate the rich history and promising future of precise timekeeping.

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