Thought Leadership

What time is it?

By Colin Walls

I like to know what time it is. It is not an obsession, but I do not like being late for things. So, I always wear a watch. Nothing fancy – I have a number of watches and, at any one time, a couple are actually working. I read somewhere that people wear watches less nowadays, instead they rely on their mobile phone for getting the time.

This week – because I am 8 time zones from home – I have been thinking a lot about time. Knowing what time it is should be simple, but there are numerous complications …

Although I am not obsessed by a need to have time set precisely to the second, I do like to be able to set my watch straightforwardly. Many years ago in the UK, a standard way to get the accurate time was by phone using the “Speaking Clock”. Anyone of my age or older will remember the recorded voice: “At the third stroke …”. I wonder if that service still exists. Of course, further back, church clocks would chime the hour. They still do in places. The one near my house currently chimes 4 minutes late! Another way to get a time check is via the radio. The BBC broadcast “the pips” on the hour. These are very precisely set and count down that last 5 seconds of the hour. However, they are no longer always precise. With “analog” radio, the time the signal took to reach a radio receiver was near instantaneous, but digital broadcasting introduces a very noticeable lag. I do not know whether this is predictable and a compensation could be applied. Maybe they will do that when the old transmitters are finally switched off. Radio streamed over the Internet is worse: not only is there a lag, but it is definitely not predictable. The Internet is never a reliable way o get time information.

At least once you know the time, it is easy to communicate that to someone else. Wrong! There are lots of ways to confuse the issue. For example, the 24 hour clock is a very good way to specify the time, but very few people use it all the time [not even I do that] and in the US they seem to find it confusing. The 12 hour clock is, however, ambiguous. I do know an example of someone I knew who went to a meeting at 10 at night, when they had been expected 12 hours earlier. The language of time is full of pitfalls. In the UK, we say “quarter past” or “10 past”; in the US it is “10 after” etc. We might also refer to 6:30 as “half past six”, but this commonly gets compressed to “half six”. If you translate that literally to, say, German, they understand that as meaning a half hour before the hour – i.e. 5:30. Plenty of room for confusion there. Maybe I will start using the 24 hour clock all the time and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

There are many other complications around time. I have talked about the stupidity of Daylight Savings Time before, for example. Also, time zones should be a very simple concept, but it is also fraught with oddities, but I think I will save that topic for another day.

Leave a Reply

This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at