Visiting Naval Observatory page is time well spent

To synchronize your watch to "official" U.S. time, visit the home page of the Time Service Department at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., (tycho.usno.navy.mil).

The utilitarian home page offers the current time, but click through to the pages within, and you will enter a World Wide Web site that delights with facts about the inexorable ticking of the clocks that too often rule people's lives.

The USNO site delivers a mind-boggling amount of information about time in a series of well-written and smartly illustrated pages that will draw any visitor deeper into a subject than they thought they had time for. The USNO serves up dry facts with a dollop of wit to make them easier to handle.

For example, information on various types of time— atomic time, universal time, coordinate universal time, dynamical time, geocentric coordinate time, barycentric coordinate time and sidreal time— can be found by clicking on "The USNO Master Clock" link on the home page and then on the "Definitions of Systems of Time at USNO" link. The page opens quite aptly with a quote from James Thurber's The 13 Clocks: "Now let me see," the Golux said. "If you can touch the clocks and never start them, then you can start the clocks and never touch them. That's logic, as I know and use it."

Other pages on the site offer insights on the subject of time from a variety of authors, including John Dryden, Samuel Butler and William Shakespeare. But the quotations from literary greats come in second to an observation from the Time Service Department's Hector Berlioz, who said, "Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils."

Students of time can learn about the USNO's history of timekeeping by going to the "The USNO Master Clock Facility" page and clicking on a link for "A Brief History of USNO Timekeeping." This page starts with a description that might explain the origin of the traditional New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square, New York. In 1845, at the request of the secretary of the Navy, the observatory installed a ball on top of the telescope dome on Observatory Hill. The ball was dropped every day precisely at noon. Before Washington, D.C., was heavily developed, viewing the ball drop allowed residents in the area and people aboard ships in the Potomac River to set their timepieces.

From that low-tech start, the observatory adopted new technology, starting with telegraph lines and leading to "atomic" hydrogen maser clocks, which are explained in detail in another section of the time site (tycho.usno.navy.mil/maser.html). The "Hydrogen Masers" page is illustrated with a picture of the maser clock itself; it's a chunky object that looks like an old-fashioned office safe on wheels.

The USNO time site uses a variety of graphics that are carefully chosen to illustrate a point. For example, the USNO Web designers chose the image of melting watches by Salvador Dali to illustrate the "Precise Time" page. A woodcut of the observatory in the 1800s illustrates the history page, and another woodcut of a chronometer is used on the otherwise equation-ridden "Time Scales" page.

The USNO time page is a well-organized, easy-to-read and information-packed site. Take the time to visit, even if you don't have the time to spare.

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