60 kHz

February 27, 2022

There’s a radio station in Colorado that broadcasts the time.

It’s WWVB, the station that the National Institute of Standards and Technology uses to broadcast the current time, tuned to the 60 kHz frequency. Day and night, this station diligently continues broadcasting.

60 kHz is at a “low frequency” part of the spectrum, which means the bandwidth is just enough to broadcast a single digit of binary every second. It takes a full minute just to broadcast the current time.

The WWVB station is used by every radio clock in the United States. They read the minute-long broadcast once a day or so, and set themselves to that time. Then, they offset the broadcasted time by whatever time zone you’ve set on the clock, since WWVB doesn’t know what time zone you’re in.

That’s how radio clocks accurately know the current time without you needing to set them. They read it from the airwaves.

Clever, isn’t it? We needed a way for clocks to set their own time, so the government set up a radio station that broadcasts the current time forever.

This kind of thing is exceedingly cool to me. That the solution feels like it’s just neat.

I’m not particularly patriotic, but this kind of thing feels particularly American. Perhaps my imagination of American innovation is still set in the era of lunar missions and radio. But we had a problem, and we solved it with technology. And none of that fancy newfangled technology — we solved it using solid technology, the kind that you can touch with your hands and that buzzes in the airwaves.

It’s also a reminder that we owe the way the world works to an unimaginable number of invisible people who have come before us. Everything around builds atop the contributions of people, not unlike us, who tried to leave the world a little better than they’d found it.