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The Greenwich Time Signal

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William Crawley | 10:08 UK time, Tuesday, 25 March 2008

I've been presenting Evening Extra, our drive-time news programme, for the past couple of days. News programmes present me with a challenge I don't have to deal with on Sunday Sequence -- the pips. They appear in my computer running order as "GTS", meaning "Greenwich Time Signal" (though they haven't indicated Greenwich Mean Time since 1972 -- we now use international atomic time).

It really doesn't get more "BBC" than the six-pip time signal, and "crashing the pips" (talking over them) is something we try to avoid. In fact, I've heard stories of presenters in bygone years being called to editors' offices to explain how they managed to crash. Sometimes, in the dash and splash of a live news programme, crashing may be unavoidable, but it's certainly not encouraged. I have contrived ways to stop talking seven or eight seconds before the hour to make space for the six-pip time signal. The easiest way to avoid crashing, I've found, is to have a broadcast assistant give me a ten-second countdown in talkback (our communication system between producers and presenter). This didn't work last night because the weatherman, giving the prospects for the week ahead, got as far as Wednesday before realising he had only 10 seconds left to do Thursday, Friday and the weekend -- I just had time to say "Thanks", before I heard the beginning of the pips ringing out let a death-toll. Thankfully, there is no stewards' enquiry into pip-crashing these days.

Before we had pips, a pianist in the studio played notes that chimed like the bongs of Big Ben. Pianists across Britain can thank Frank Dyson, the then Astronomer Royal, for the loss of work, for it was he who, in 1923, proposed a new public time signal that would enable everyone in the country to set their clocks and watches accurately. Though, if we still had pianists instead of the electronic time signal, I could have stared menacingly at him or her last night and given the weatherman more time to finish his read. (In other words, I could have played for time, while the pianist played for time.)

Here's a question for you. Each of the six pips is a tenth of a second, except the last, which is a full half-second. Why is the last pip longer than the previous five?


  • 1.
  • At 11:49 AM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • Chris wrote:

Presumably the last pip is longer to indicate that it's the last one?

  • 2.
  • At 01:03 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • freethinker wrote:

Of course the time signal is only accurate on analogue MW or FM or terrestrial TV - on digital radio (DAB) or digital TV (Freeview Sky or Virgin cable) the signal is up to 5 seconds late due to the inherent time delay in processing digital signals - which is also different for different makes of DAB radios and set top boxes

  • 3.
  • At 01:08 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • Rick wrote:

The answer might be that it is longer to let the presenter finish saying thanks! or according to Auntie...

"The final pip, lasting half a second, is longer than the other five, which last a tenth of a second. The reason for this is that atomic time is calculated independently of the Earth's spin (which is basically the method for calculating GMT), and occasionally an extra second needs to be added to compensate. To prevent people setting their watches prematurely, the final pip, whether it is the sixth or the seventh, is slightly longer"


Now what's my prize?

freethinker #2- Correct! The delay occurs of course on the internet too as the stream takes extra time to buffer (it may be up to a minute late online). I do hope they keep the pips for sheer BBC effect, after the total switchover to digital broadcasting.

  • 5.
  • At 07:22 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • freethinker wrote:

Further to my last post and in answer to William's specific question
I would suggest that William should just continue with his interview or whatever with the pips in the background - and the next prog start when he's finished!

  • 6.
  • At 08:14 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • Simon wrote:

Terry Wogan has lost his no claims bonus cos he's crashed the pips so often

  • 7.
  • At 08:50 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • Helman wrote:

Bring back the piano! I'd pay to hear that!

  • 8.
  • At 09:04 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • PTL wrote:

If this is to be believed, Time is a human construct, and human beings can decide, as they please, how to measure it. This is another example of the subjectivism that has contaminated our thinking these days. Time is created by God and there is only one Time ... God's Time. Time flows objectively and it represented the flow of God's thought ad action in the world. God invented Time. Scientists did not invent it. They may try to measure it, but they can never fully understand it. Stephen Hawking thinks he is able to produce a "Brief History" of Time. Impossible! Hawking's attempt is bereft of meaning and sense because he has deliberately excluded God from his analysis. That's like explaining a clock without reference to the clock-maker. We need to rediscover the Author of Time, then we will make sense of the Time we have given to us in this life. That Time is small and diminishing. Now is the accepted Time, say the Scriptures. the accepted Time for turning to the one who set the stars in their place and the atoms in their movement. When the last decimal of recorded Time slips away, we will still have to give an explanation of how we chose to spend the Time given to us in this life. Like evaporating pips, the sound of God waiting for an answer will be deafening. How will you answer?

  • 9.
  • At 09:22 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • Simon wrote:

As Einstein has shown, time is relative and is part of the time/space continuum. It is not objective nor is it a human construct in that humans did not create the Universe. But humans did create the pips. The question is, do the pips sound differently the weaker gravity is?

  • 10.
  • At 09:38 PM on 25 Mar 2008,
  • FFS wrote:

PTL mate, what are you smoking tonight? We're talking about the pips on the BBC not the nature of time or how much we have left before the end of the world. We know your answer to that question (i.e., not very much).

Here's some timely advice ...

It's TIME that fundamentalists stop lecturing the rest of us about how to live our lives. Worry about your own life mate.

  • 11.
  • At 09:36 AM on 26 Mar 2008,
  • D Smyth wrote:

When, oh when, will the God squad learn that turning a discussion on the 'Pip patrol' into a fundamentalist rant with an opportunity to 'put your hand up if you want to be saved' actually turns more people off religion than it attracts?

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall pass away the fundamentalists might have rather a lot of explaining to do as to some of the 'tactics' they used in evangalising.

Couldn't agree more with FFS and D. Smyth. There's a lot of it about at the moment, especially over the Embryology Bill.

What I always associate with the pips on the radio was what came after them when I was a kid, i.e. a great voice like that of Frank Phillips or Alvar Lidell reading the news. And, boy, could they read it – apart from the voice, the seemingly effortless fluency, the meticulous pronunciation and the sense of importance.

I remember the death of President Kennedy, and can visualise my father in the kitchen with tears in his eyes on the Saturday morning as he listened to Frank Phillips reading the news of it. He made it sound like the world had come to an end. It meant nothing to me as a teenager, but it is an indelible memory.

  • 13.
  • At 04:23 PM on 26 Mar 2008,
  • Dylan_Dog wrote:

I think PTL is a WUM(wind up merchant).

I have had the misfortune to meet some real looney tune fundamentalists but to be fundie about pips-please!

  • 14.
  • At 11:35 PM on 26 Mar 2008,
  • Billy wrote:

Your work on Evening Extra sounds dangerous William, does the BBC supply lead vests and crash hats.

Never mind the pips. What about the fits? BBC newsreader Charlotte Green has done it again. She has corpsed reading the 8 am news. About 10 years ago she read the name of the head of Papua New Guinea's armed forces, Major General Jack Tuat (pronounced Twat). The giggles erupted in the next story which was about a sperm whale!

This morning she had a fit of the giggles again after an item about an early (inaudible) recording of Claire de Lune. Unfortunately the next item was an obituary. A great moment. Charlotte is a live wire with a fine sense of the ridiculous. I mentioned Frank Phillips above. He deliberately inserted asides when reading a bulletin. Of course, he pressed the cough button but knew that it didn’t always work very effectively. Thus he would read: “The thieves escaped in a fast car” (and then he would be heard to add: “Did they think it would be a slow one?”)

Charlotte is on the News Quiz and on one occasion she talked about snow and compared it to sex: "You never know how many inches you are going to get and how long it's going to last".

Listen again at:

  • 16.
  • At 08:43 PM on 29 Mar 2008,
  • Peter Morrow wrote:

D Smyth, your comment about the 'God Squad is, unfortunately, correct. Reorienting every topic into a 'Time is Short' monologue, as some Christians have a tendency to do, isn't helpful. This is especially true when otherwise reasonable points are mixed which chiche.

Time that some of us had a rethink!

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