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Mean solar time: Time for action

In January 2012 the World Radiocommunication Conference of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will vote on whether to redefine Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and pull our clock time out of synchronisation with the Sun's location in the sky.

From the dawn of civilisation we have based our time and calendar on the Sun, leading to the concept of mean solar time (MST). In 1972 UTC was adopted as the basis for all time signals. UTC counts SI (atomic) seconds, one by one, from an arbitrary origin.

It was accepted that it was important to link the actual time count with MST, as this has cultural, religious, political and practical significance. So it was arranged that occasional minutes of UTC would contain 61 or 59 seconds. We have not been warned that this link may be about to be lost.

Where precision timekeeping and a scheme for counting seconds is essential, notably navigation using GPS, a strict atomic time scale with 60 seconds per minute was adopted. GPS internal time is a fixed offset from International Atomic Time (TAI) which is already defined and available for such purposes.

The leap second is now 40 years old. It was appropriate to the technology of the time, with announcements distributed by post or telex. We have had 24 leap seconds to date, and UTC is currently 34 seconds behind TAI. There was a period of seven years just before 2006 with no leap seconds. People are getting worried that we might forget how to manage them, leading to catastrophic system failure.

UTC gives a coarse approximation to MST, which is what most of us want from our timepieces. If this vote is passed, our time signals would drift away from MST indefinitely and we would have to check online before we can set our watches to UK legal time.

The vote is between the status quo and UTC cast-off from MST; either a coarse approximation to MST or none at all. Why not abolish leap seconds, which very few of us actually enjoy, while at the same time providing a better approximation to MST, with 60 seconds to every minute? I feel that the engineering community should be able to come up with a timescale based on atomic time, without leap seconds, and much closer to MST.

I find it odd that a compact body like the ITU might be about to change all our futures in this way. It seems to me to be a severe case of the tail wagging the dog.

John Chambers FIET,

Head of UK Time Service, NPL, 1993-96,

Tadworth, Surrey


Value for money

The partly state-owned bank RBS awards £500m in annual bonuses. The newly announced Queen's Prize for Engineering Excellence intends to reward one individual every two years with £1m. Had the prize been £1m annually for each of the top 500 UK engineers we might get somewhere. And this is feasible. Otherwise, many of the best of our engineering graduates will continue to opt for the City.

Aside from the questionable morality of banks recruiting our best engineering and science talent, the process deprives the real UK economy of this talent and means fewer wealth-creating opportunities. Worse still, banks do not create wealth except through the companies they invest in. The supposed value of the banks to the UK economy is in denial of the fact that they invest abroad in economies which compete with us, while simultaneously depriving us of the talent and ability to succeed in that competition.

EurIng Dr David Rhodes CEng FIET

Wollaton, Nottingham

Who really pays for our energy?

Mike Travers (Letters, December 2011) makes the point that green energy is more expensive, and it's pushing up electricity bills. What he omits from his argument is the reasons why the current fossil-fuel-based electricity is so cheap. It is because we ignore the externalities – what fossil fuels produce in terms of pollution and manmade climate change. This cost is currently being ignored and left for children and grandchildren to pay.

Alistair Fox CEng MIET



Cost of going green

Clive Reader (Letters, December 2011) rightly says that the reduction in feed-in tariffs providing subsidies for solar power installations means that people will stop buying them. I do hope so; I want to stop subsidising these part-time devices that do not at all reduce the need to build reliables to meet our winter maximum demand for power, which always occurs after dark. It's not the government who will pay you vast sums for very little, it's the rest of us, including me.

Mr Reader also says a consequence will be 'decelerating the potential reduction in demand for centrally generated power'. Energy, perhaps, but not power – but many people seem not to know the difference.

Bill Hyde CEng FIET

Offham, Kent

Status in the States

Andrew Bartlett (Letters, December) writes about how the status of US engineers is improved by use of the Professional Engineer title. Over my working life of 44 years, in which I worked for large and medium-size companies in Ontario, Canada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Arizona and Florida, as well as attending technical conferences and meetings in all the lower 48 states, I never knowingly met any Professional Engineers.

In my function as an electronics engineer and later as an engineering manager, I never interviewed or hired anyone claiming to be a Professional Engineer. The companies I worked for did not care about Professional Engineers. Thus Mr Bartlett's statement that 'In my native Texas it is against the law to claim to be an engineer' is not true for most engineers. As I understand it, Professional Engineers are required to be hired by State law when their mis-actions could directly impact the safety of the public.

Regarding the statement that 'Engineering over here is regarded as a desirable, lucrative and respected career' – if engineering is so desirable and a respected profession, how come so many US students don't take up engineering? It seems to me that over the past 30 or so years most engineers working in the US are transplants, either directly or indirectly, from other countries.

Peter Brooks MIET

Palm Bay, Florida, USA

Patently obvious

Fraser Brown writes to defend 'our' patents system. It is not surprising that, as a patent attorney, he regards it as both fair and fit for purpose. Those of us who have ideas know better. Only established companies can even begin to consider paying the costs associated with hiring members of Mr Brown's profession. Lone inventors are almost completely excluded from the benefits he mentions.

It's nonsense to suggest that it's even possible for the UK's most inventive people to 'take on the big boys' via patents. Leaving aside drafting costs, we simply can't afford policing or litigation. In practice, and in the absence of rich friends, the only way is to form an alliance with a corporate and tolerate the comparatively poor deals that that entails (if you can even find one that will listen). Otherwise, UK inventors have to use their creativity to skirt around existing patents or spot opportunities for quick sales of uncontended product ideas.

Patrick Andrews CEng

By email

I cannot endorse too strongly the point Fraser Brown makes of the importance of a strong patent system to the strength of the UK economy. For a country in which the manufacturing base has been massively reduced over the last 50 or more years, it is essential if we are to maintain a reasonable standard of living for all concerned that we make the most of our intellectual property in the areas of research and development where we indisputably lead the world. These intellectual property rights can only be protected through a strong patent position.

In the 1980s, through research at Nottingham University the UK built up a dominant position in magnetic resonance imaging, one of the most significant advances in medical science over the last hundred years. Had the British Technology Group not successfully protected this work by a portfolio of strong patents, and aggressively pursued those companies abroad who were infringing them, any financial benefit to the UK would have been lost.

There are many examples of this, by virtue of which BTG and its predecessor the National Research Development Corporation has, over the years through strong patent positions, generated hundreds of millions of pounds for the UK economy.

Dr Peter Tanner FIET


Standard phone charger on the way

T Bradbury writes with justifiable concern about the waste associated with multiple mobile phone chargers (Letters, December 2011). The good news is that the EU also agreed that the issue is wasteful and, in 2009, gave the industry a wake-up call – adopt a standard for chargers or be subject to legislation. A Memorandum of Understanding came into effect early in 2011. Many new phones already use the adopted micro-USB connector, although only those which adhere to the EU standard are considered suitable for cross-brand use.

There are still some loopholes, for example non-data enabled mobile phones, but it is surely in the manufacturer's own interest to standardise the charging systems across their whole range. By doing so, they should be able to streamline their supply chain as well as reduce waste. The legislation does not apply outside the EU, however I would hope that, as for the GSM standard, the charger standardisation will spread outside of the EU, to the benefit of all.

Tim Lewcock IEng MIET

Blandford, Dorset

Wake up people! It's the 21st century. I cook my meals on an induction cooker hob. The next generation of all-electric cars will be charged by a coil embedded in the floor pan; rechargeable toothbrushes are kept in an induction holder; about two decades ago I was regularly using a circuit logic analyser charged by induction.

So what is so difficult about mobile phones? I accept that the charging frequency in the cradle would need to be raised by switch-mode techniques or equivalent to minimise the physical size and weight of the coil in the handset, but is there such reluctance to adopt this method?

Surely between Sugar, Dyson, Bayliss and Branson et al there must be enough entrepreneurial wit to put this subject to rest permanently. There must, if nothing else, be a big enough market.

JD Woodcock

Annan, Dumfriesshire

Analogue advantage

'Expect those crackly signals to continue broadcasting well into the next decade,' Kris Sangani predicts in his article on the prospects of UK analogue radio switch-off (December 2011). If he's suffering from crackly reception I suggest he spends a few quid upgrading to a VHF/FM radio. From my 1970s Grundig to the Panasonic in my car, my radios are crackle free. It's as a result of the AM rejection offered by FM detectors.

Robert Latham MIEE

By email

Making music

The viola and the violist are the traditional butts of much orchestral humour, but are you not carrying things a little far when you maintain ('In the Footsteps of a Master', December 2011) that a luthier makes a violin in 120 hours, a cello in 300, but a viola in a mere 15? Since it is well-known that the principal difference between a violin and a viola is that the viola takes longer to burn it seems unlikely that it takes so much less time to build.

EurIng James Bryant MIET

By email

[Apologies for this misprint, which should have indicated that a viola takes around 15 per cent longer to manufacture than a violin. – Ed]

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