The proposal for a time signal came from one Frank Hope-Jones in a radio talk in April 1923. Reith and the Astronomer Royal, Frank Dyson, agreed on the idea of broadcasting Greenwich Standard Time with a chronometer at the Royal Observatory tripping a switch at five seconds to the hour to create those iconic pips – using a 1kHz oscillator, for the technically minded. The time signal was first broadcast at 9.30 p.m. on 5 February 1924.
|Time signal broadcasts in 1928|
From the start there were always six pips, but the last one was extended from 1/10th of a second to 1/2 a second on 31 December 1971; the result of an international agreement to adopt “leap seconds” which required a seventh pip now and again. As the BBC Handbook helpfully used to say: “all that needs to be remembered is that the exact start of the hour is marked by the start of the final long pip.”
|Custody of the pips is handed over from the Greenwich Royal Observatory |
to the BBC on 5 February 1990. Pictured are Dr John Pilkington (left) of the
RGO and Duncan Thomas, Director of Resources (Radio) for the BBC.
In February 1990 responsibility for generating the pips was taken over by the BBC, the equipment stored in the bowels of Broadcasting House. They’ve not been without incident: they started to come adrift by a few seconds in 2008 and in 2011 they packed in all together. Computer problems were blamed.
So here’s my ‘pips soundscape’ to commemorate those ninety years of time-keeping. You’ll hear the voices of Mr Hope-Jones, Peter Jones, Sandi Toksvig, Barry Cryer, Terry Wogan, Jan Ravens, Eddie Mair and Keith Skues. The music includes Handel’s Clock Symphony, Delia Derbyshire’s Time To Go, David Lowe’s themes for BBC News and part of Damon Albarn’s Radio Reunited.
You can follow the Greenwich Time Signal on Twitter @BBC_GTS where you’ll find it sulking in the basement and berating the continuity announcers.