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The Invention of Clocks 
Part 4: Atomic Clocks and Time Standards
 
More of this History of Clocks Feature
Part 1: Ancient Calendars
Part 2: Sun & Water Clocks
Part 3: Mechanical & Quartz Clocks
Part 5: Time Scales & Zones
Related Clock Resources
Clocks
The History of Atomic Clocks
Cesium Fountain Atomic Clock
Atomic Clock Sync utility
Time Standards on The Web
International Atomic Time
Time Synchronization and Time Standards
USNO Time Standards in Standard Time Zones 

Scientists had long realized that atoms (and molecules) have resonances; each chemical element and compound absorbs and emits electromagnetic radiation at its own characteristic frequencies. These resonances are inherently stable over time and space. An atom of hydrogen or cesium here today is exactly like one a million years ago or in another galaxy. Here was a potential "pendulum" with a reproducible rate that could form the basis for more accurate clocks.

The development of radar and extremely high frequency radio communications in the 1930s and 1940s made possible the generation of the kind of electromagnetic waves (microwaves) needed to interact with the atoms. Research aimed at developing an atomic clock focused first on microwave resonances in the ammonia molecule. In 1949, NIST built the first atomic clock, which was based on ammonia. However, its performance wasn't much better than existing standards, and attention shifted almost immediately to more-promising, atomic-beam devices based on cesium.

[Laboratory cesium frequency standard]
In 1957, NIST completed its first cesium atomic beam device, and soon after a second NIST unit was built for comparison testing. By 1960, cesium standards had been refined enough to be incorporated into the official timekeeping system of NIST.

In 1967, the cesium atom's natural frequency was formally recognized as the new international unit of time: the second was defined as exactly 9,192,631,770 oscillations or cycles of the cesium atom's resonant frequency replacing the old second that was defined in terms of the earth's motions. The second quickly became the physical quantity most accurately measured by scientists. The best primary cesium standards now keep time to about one-millionth of a second per year.

Much of modern life has come to depend on precise time. The day is long past when we could get by with a timepiece accurate to the nearest quarter hour. Transportation, communication, manufacturing, electric power and many other technologies have become dependent on super-accurate clocks. Scientific research and the demands of modern technology continue to drive our search for ever more accurate clocks. The next generation of cesium time standards is presently under development at NIST's Boulder laboratory and other laboratories around the world.

Information and illustrations provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Commerce

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