Every night, while millions of Americans are fast asleep, clocks and wristwatches across the country wake up and lock on to a radio signal beamed from the base of the Rocky Mountains.
The signal contains a message that keeps the devices on time, helping to make sure their owners keep to their schedules and aren’t late for work the next day.
The broadcast comes from WWVB, a station run by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). WWVB marks half a century as the nation’s official time broadcaster on July 5. Together with its sister station, WWV, which is about to hit 90 years in service, NIST radio has been an invisible piece of American infrastructure that has advanced industries from entertainment to telecommunications. (WWV’s broadcast includes a wider range of information, including maritime weather warnings and solar storm alerts).
Most people aren’t even aware that these stations exist, but they have a rich and fascinating history. Their future is uncertain, however, as newer technologies threaten to make them obsolete.
NIST is the government agency charged with developing the technology standards that underlie everything from data encryption to cholesterol tests. “We’re in the business of weights and measures,” said John Lowe, who directs NIST’s time services from Boulder, Colorado.
At first glance, it’s unclear why the people who test bulletproof vests and smoke detectors would be in the radio business. But as broadcast technology blossomed through the first half of the 20th century, the government quickly recognized the need to standardize radio.
Manufacturers were churning out equipment left and right to deliver information over the air, but no one was ensuring that a particular frequency was the same in Maine as it was in Malibu.
Enter NIST, the folks who determine the length of a second. A radio signal is really defined by time, the number of peaks in a wave that pass by a point every second. The FM band, for instance, occupies the airwaves between 87.7 and 108 megahertz (MHz), or millions of cycles per second.
Making sure that the dial on the radio in someone’s home or car matches the broadcast signal demands that stations and receivers all agree on the same standard second.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc