TFTNB: HP atomic clocks set the standard

In our on-going series looking at classic computing devices birthed at HP, we see not only what they did, but also get a better sense of what was happening at the time each product came to market. (For a full explanation of why we’re calling this “Tales from the Next Bench,” read here).



This installment: HP 5060A cesium-beam (1964, 1967) 


image010_high.jpgSay it with me: “Cesium-Beam.” What may sound like it’s out of a Star Wars movie, is actually something that affects how

you go about your day – the time. Back in 1964, as HP celebrated its 25th anniversary as a company, HP introduced the highly accurate HP 5060A cesium-beam to keep accurate time. In short, this is the tech behind the atomic clock. Think about it for a second….since you can accurately measure it now. How many times have you noticed a clock running a little slow or a couple minutes ahead? Any clock is bound to be a nanosecond off and, over time, those nanoseconds add up.


How does it work? To get a little more scientific about it, I found this site, which explains it fairly well:

“A cesium clock operates by exposing cesium atoms to microwaves until they vibrate at one of their resonant frequencies and then counting the corresponding cycles as a measure of time. The frequency involved is that of the energy absorbed from the incident photons when they excite the outermost electron in a cesium atom to jump ("transition") from a lower to a higher orbit.” The result is that cesium-beam clocks can be accurate within 2 nanoseconds per day or one second in 1,400,000 years, according to the site.


Now that we understand how it works (if you were able to follow that, because I had to read it a couple of times!), let’s jump ahead a couple years to 1967. That’s when a team of HP engineers took to the skies to test its atomic clocks. Traveling to 18 countries (too bad they didn’t have frequent flyer programs back then) these atomic clocks were developed to synchronize international time standards. As a result of these test runs, the cesium beam became the standard for international time.


And with that, another excuse for being late to work was gone. Speaking of which, is it a coincidence that HP introduced the concept of flexible working hours in 1967 as well? I’ll have to look into that. 


What else was happening in 1967? It was a year of many firsts – and part of an era of amazing changes. North American football hosted the first Super Bowl (Go Green Bay!) and Rolling Stone rolled out its first issue. It’s the same year that The Beatles released the seminal album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.



But in theaters, 1967 was all about “man movies,” including one of my husband’s favorites: The Dirty Dozen. Of course, I’d be remiss to ignore what else was happening in the world. Thurgood Marshall becomes the first black justice on the Supreme Court as Muhammad Ali is stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to join the US Army.

Of course, we’re not ignoring the fact that the world was bubbling over. Race riots broke out in a number of US cities; Arab forces attacked Israel for six days. And as HP worked on atomic clocks, China tested its first hydrogen bomb.

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