A plaque commemorating the NPL's award

NPL named birthplace of atomic time

The National Physical Laboratory has been officially declared the birthplace of atomic timekeeping.

The EPS Historic Sites Award recognises NPL as the place where the first practical atomic clock was built, a landmark which has changed global timekeeping and made modern communications and location services possible.

The Teddington laboratory was where Louis Essen constructed the atomic clock Caesium Mk. 1 with fellow physicist John Parry in the 1950s, which eventually paved the way for redefining the second in 1967 based on the fundamental properties of caesium atoms, rather than the Earth’s rotation.

Professor John Dudley, President of the European Physical Society, said: “Today NPL is justly recognised as a historic site. Essen’s work here, as well as that of many other leading scientists, has benefitted the lives of all Europeans by providing the precision of timing required for applications such as advanced telecommunications, navigation and defence systems.”

Every GPS satellite has atomic clocks on-board that measure time very accurately in order to calculate global position.

Atomic clocks also synchronise every mobile phone network to manage the transfer from one cell to the next and atomic time is required to synchronise computer systems – for example through the Network Time Protocol – to enable emails and other transactions online.

Dr Brian Bowsher, Managing Director of NPL, said: “Being recognised by the EPS is an honour and is testament to the work of our current, as well as our past scientists. Although invisible, atomic time has impacted the lives of all of us.

“What’s more, ground-breaking developments continue to be made in this field, with the a new generation of atomic clocks on the horizon that could provide everything from improved satellite navigation systems to more sensitive tests of fundamental physical theories.”

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