David Rooney tells us the story of the six pips
Join David Rooney to find out about Dama Nellie Melba, pioneer of wireless entertainment, the story of the clock that made the six pips, and why, if you’re a stickler for punctuality, you should hang on to your analogue radio set.
Hello. I’m Natasha Waterson.
And I’m David Rooney, the Curator of Timekeeping here at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Now today we are standing in the Time and Greenwich galleries at the Royal Observatory, in front of a large wooden pendulum clock, which David tells me has an interesting story behind it.
Yes, a fascinating story. It’s a wonderful clock, but more on that in a moment. Now we need to go all the way back to June 1920, and we need to go to Chelmsford to meet Dame Nellie Melba who goes to Chelmsford to the Marconi Studios. Marconi is synonymous with early radio broadcasting.
This is the first ever advertised radio broadcast of entertainment in this country. So there she is. She turns up. People are tuned in all around Europe. She sings some songs, she emits her warbling trills, and everyone is delighted with hearing entertainment by wireless.
She, however, wasn’t the easiest person to work with. She was a bit of a diva. She turned up at Marconi, and the guy in charge showed her the two huge masts on the roof of Marconi headquarters and said, ‘Dame Nellie Melba, it’s from here that your voice will be carried around Britain.’
And she famously said, ‘Young man, if you think I am going to climb up there, you are greatly mistaken.’ That was not the case. She did not have to get up there. And history was started for radio in 1920.
Two years later, the British Broadcasting Company, the BBC, was formed as a consortium of wireless manufacturers led by Marconi, and this was the start of the BBC and of popular radio entertainment for Britain.
They knew that they had a chance to deliver time services. They were to get more and more listeners who could get Greenwich Time, and they knew that this was the chance, and they set up their first time service.
So what did they do?
Well, it was not quite as high-tech as you might be expecting. In fact, what they got ultimately was a specially tuned set of tubular bells installed in the studios, which eventually turned up at Savoy Hill, just on the banks of the river Thames in London.
They would famously throw open the windows of the studios and listen for the sound of Big Ben from the Houses of Parliament, which was a little way along the Thames. And they would hear Big Ben, and they would play along, the Westminster Chimes, on these tubular bells, into the microphone and then across Britain.
Now, I have worked out in some research for a book I did on Ruth Bellville, the Greenwich Time Lady, that there is a problem with this system, and that is the speed of sound.
It actually takes about two and a half seconds for the time to get from Big Ben to the windows of the BBC, so that time signal would have gone out two and a half seconds late. They knew that they needed a more technical solution.
And what was that solution?
Well, two years after the BBC was founded, 1924, they decided, ‘We need to have a tie-in with the Royal Observatory, Greenwich,’ here, because we provided excellent, quality time, and they provided broadcasting opportunities. So we had the clock that we’re standing right next to fitted up with electrical contacts.
It is a very good pendulum clock used by astronomers, fitted with electrical contacts that meant that every 15 minutes, six short bursts of electricity would go up a rented telephone line to the BBC in Savoy Hill, where they could be turned into tones or pips as they became known, and broadcast whenever the announcers wanted.
This was the start of the BBC ‘Six Pips’ time signal, 1924, and the clock that made the pips is the clock that we are standing right next to now. It’s an extraordinary part of our history. It’s still with us now, we still listen to the pips, but there’s something at the end, which means that perhaps things don’t change as much as we would like.
And what is that?
Well, I mentioned two and half seconds. That was the delay from the speed of sound, according to Big Ben, going into the microphones of the BBC. Well, if you are listening to BBC Radio on a digital radio, you will know there is a delay, and it is two and a half seconds. The pips go out late on digital radio by two and half seconds. Keep hold of your analogue radio sets.
David, thank you very much.