For Al Gore, the Clock Is Ticking

What is misleading about how the clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory tracks time?

October 17, 2000

What is misleading about how the clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory tracks time?

When you drive by the official residence of U.S. Vice President Al Gore these days, you may notice a clock near the gate, dutifully counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds. Given that the “Veep” is locked in a tight race for the U.S. presidency, you might guess the clock is counting down to Election Day, November 7 … or perhaps to Inauguration Day, January 26, 2001. But you would be oh so wrong.

If you stop by the Vice President’s residence today, on October 17, you’ll see that the clock will keep ticking off time for 75 more days. A bit of quick math tells you that that is too long for the clock to be counting down to the U.S. presidential election, which takes place on November 7 — about three weeks away. By the time the clock reaches zero, Americans will have already cast their votes.

And by Inauguration Day, on January 26, 2001, the clock will have stopped counting. Only by a process of elimination do you arrive at this simple fact — the countdown has nothing to do with Al Gore. Instead, the clock is marking the time till January 1, 2001 — the true start of the new millennium.

Given Mr. Gore’s rather legendary infatuation with science and technology (he frequently speaks about electric cars and other new technologies on the campaign trail), it is not much of a stretch to think he had the clock installed as part of a “millennium education” initiative. Unlike the rest of the world, which had millennium hoopla a year too soon, the very level-headed Al Gore would celebrate the arrival of the new millennium only at the appropriate time.

But, alas, Mr. Gore had nothing to do with the installation of the clock at the gate of his residence. It so happens that the Vice President’s home is located on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory — a scientific agency that has been the keeper of the official time in the United States since 1845.

Back then, before it could use modern forms of telephony to convey the official time, the Naval Observatory dropped a “time ball” every day, precisely at noon, enabling Washingtonians to set their timepieces. These days, those who pass by the clock at the Observatory can set their watches to a decidely more sophisticated apparatus — the USNO Master Clock.

This so-called atomic clock is so accurate that it will lose only a second every 1.4 million years or so. It works by exposing cesium atoms to microwave radiation, causing them to vibrate at a measurable frequency. Needless to say, you won’t find this technology being used in a Rolex wristwatch anytime soon.

Given the accuracy of their clocks, the Observatory is something of an authority when it comes to marking the new millennium. As they explain, the first millennium began on January 1, 1 A.D, implying that the third millennim will begin on January 1, 2001 A.D. All those billions of people who celebrated the millennium’s arrival on January 1, 2000, jumped the gun. If there had been a year 0, they would have been right on time.

But even if the coming New Year isn’t greeting with the huge celebrations of last New Year’s Eve, it is sure to be a significant date for Al Gore. By then he will know if he will be the first person to take the presidential oath in the third millennium. Until then, he has plenty of time to think about his inaugural speech — or his future job plans in the private sector.