Wednesday, 5 February 2014


Marking the hour, every hour like, ahem, clockwork. The Greenwich Time Signal aka The Pips. Those little tones are ninety years old today. Happy bleeping birthday!

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

Note that half-past the hour time signal, these days we normally associate them with marking the top of the hour. In fact the signal is generated at quarter past and quarter to the hour also, although this is rarely (ever?) broadcast. They often provided a neat programme junction, such as the 7.30 p.m. pips you’d hear when Radio 2’s VHF signal was returned to the station after having being ‘borrowed’ by Radio 1 on a Saturday afternoons in the 70s and 80s.    

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.

1 comment:

Paul Hayes said...

I've certainly worked on a show where the quarter-past pips were broadcast, but that was because someone had left the fader up by mistake!

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