Longwave Radio Clocks

Editorial note: If you’re wondering about the Minesweeper project, an update is coming on Friday. We’re in the implementation phase, so I’m going to do a single large update to the project then, instead of doing two smaller ones today and tomorrow.

Consumer-grade long-wave radio clocks are one of those ideas that sound neat in theory and fall apart in practice. The theory is that, since these devices set themselves based upon an authoritative radio-borne time signal, they will be more accurate and less hassle than a conventional clock. Neither is really true.


In the first place, contrary to what you might think, you still have to “set” the things. LW radio signals tell you (at best) the time relative to a particular time standard, which might be UTC, or the broadcaster’s local time zone, or something else. You need to tell the clock how to convert from this standard to your local time; this usually comes down to telling it what time zone it’s in. It’s still sort of a nuisance.

In the second place, these clocks can be much less reliable than a conventional clock. The problem is that they set themselves based upon a fairly weak radio signal … which can become garbled in transmission, causing the clock to set itself not just slightly, but wildly incorrectly. Since the most important aspect of a timepiece is its accuracy with respect to the passage of time (as opposed to its accuracy with respect to the reading on any other clock) this is a huge misfeature.

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