The First Broadcast of the ‘Pips’ on BBC Radio
5th February 1924
Without going through the sequence in your head I wonder how many people could tell you, without hesitation, how many pips are played on the hour by the BBC? The answer is 6. The only change to this is on December 31st in a leap year when an extra second is added, requiring an extra, 7th, pip.
On the 75th anniversary of the Greenwich Time Signal, to give them their proper name, in 1999, the Royal Observatory displayed the timepieces that have been used to generate the effect for the very first time. They were introduced following the successful use of the chimes of Big Ben to usher in the New Year in 1924. 2 years before that a consortium including Marconi, the General Electric Company and Western Electric had combined to form a company that became known as the British Broadcasting Company. They started to broadcast radio from the Electrical Engineers Company building on Savoy Hill. Soon talks were taking place between Frank Dyson, 9th Astronomer Royal, John Reith, BBC Director General and Frank Hope-Jones, a radio enthusiast and horologist, about the idea of public time signals being broadcast.
The BBC did have time signals. An announcer played the Westminster chimes firstly on a piano then on tubular bells specially set up in the building. The Synchronome Company then provided master clocks to tick so that the announcer could count it down in his head and hit a gong at the correct time.
As Mike Todd, a BBC Broadcast Duty Manager for 16 years explains, two clocks, worth £20 each, were then purchased for the BBC to operate a signal at 30-minute intervals. By linking this with a chronometer’s escapement wheel, the Greenwich Observatory controlled the output of a 1khz oscillator that generated six short pips that started 5 seconds to the hour. These were sent down a GPO line. At 9.30pm on February 5th 1924 these were heard for the first time. The start of the 6th pip was the start of the new hour.
This ran for 13 years until the Admiralty sent a letter to the BBC asking them to contribute a sum of £520 to the running costs as they had paid nothing since that initial £40 investment. The BBC were distinctly unimpressed and outlined all that they did for the Admiralty free of charge. This included showing warships leaving and returning to port, giving weather forecasts and gale warnings. The Admiralty replied by pointing out that, under its charter, this was a requirement. It remains unclear whether the money was ever paid.
In 1939 the Signal and Time Service moved firstly to Abinger in Surrey and then in 1957 to Herstmonceux in Sussex. An electronic clock now operated the equipment and 2 special GPO lines were installed between the castle and Broadcasting House. A special amplifier was used that detected ‘holes in the tone’ that generated a ‘pip’. If the line went down an extra pip would be generated so the output of the generator was isolated until just before it was required. However spurious pips have been known to occur.
In 1971 there was an international agreement that signals would use atomic time rather than natural time. These two vary slightly and occasionally an extra second has to be put in to even it up. This causes havoc with the ‘pips’ and thus the 6th pip was extended from 1/10th of a second to ½ a second to avoid the need for an extra one.
By 1990 the Royal Greenwich Observatory had told the BBC that they would no longer continue to provide this service. Thus on February 5th 1990, (66th anniversary) the equipment was replaced by a new machine in Broadcasting House. This had a very accurate clock linked to Global Positional Satellite Navigation. 16 years later BBC Radio moved again and this time the machinery had a purpose built room.
Digital broadcasting though has mucked the whole process up and there is nothing broadcasters can do about it. It takes time to turn the audio into a digital signal, time to distribute that signal and more time to change it back into back into audio again. This means that on a DAB radio there is a delay of 1.5 seconds. If you listen on the internet the delay can be 10 seconds and the longer you listen the further behind you get.
The BBC does not like anything to interrupt the sound. If there is they call it ‘crashing the pips’ and the BBC Radio 2 programme ‘Wake up to Wogan’* was famous for doing just that with listeners tuning in just to hear if Terry could get it right. One of the ways I could get my own children into the car before 8am in time for school was to hear the Irishman navigate the record playing in time for the ‘pips’. So famous are they and so synonymous with Britain, that they were the first things heard in the handover to London 2012 Olympics at the closing ceremony in Beijing.
* This was written before the very sad and untimely death of Terry Wogan, the much respected and loved broadcaster.