In a brief and wonderful 2003 article called “Clocks and the Wealth of Nations”, economic historian David Landes explained the importance of accurate timekeeping. China missed navigational opportunities because they did not develop the precise clocks needed for latitude and longitude calculations. The result? The West did the exploration. In manufacturing, Henry Ford needed accurate clocks to measure progress with his moving assembly line. In Sandusky, Ohio, they needed accurate timekeeping when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad came to town.
You can see where this is going. Just knowing the time has played a crucial role in our economic development.
Is economic progress the reason we will soon have an atomic clock that is so accurate that it loses 1 second every 3 billion years?
The Economic Lesson
In a 1790 report to Congress, Thomas Jefferson submitted his “Plan For Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States.” Continuing the principle that the federal government is responsibile for uniformity, the National Bureau of Standards, now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was established in 1901. We look to NIST for the official time and our new atomic clock.