The New Yorker recently published a fascinating article about David Mills, a computer engineer who worked for COMSAT and ARPANET in the early days of Internet development. Mills was one of the first people to realize that networked computers would need to be running on synchronized internal clocks — and has essentially spent the rest of his life as the Internet's very own personal Father Time, making sure the computerized clocks around the globe are ticking at the right time:
Mills called his creation the Network Time Protocol, and N.T.P. soon became a key component of the nascent Internet. Programmers followed its instructions when they wrote timekeeping code for their computers. By 1988, Mills had refined N.T.P. to the point where it could synchronize the clocks of connected computers that had been telling vastly differing times to within tens of milliseconds—a fraction of a blink of an eye. "I always thought that was sort of black magic," Vint Cerf, a pioneer of Internet infrastructure, told me.
Today, we take global time synchronization for granted. It is critical to the Internet, and therefore to civilization. Vital systems—power grids, financial markets, telecommunications networks—rely on it to keep records and sort cause from effect. N.T.P. works in partnership with satellite systems, such as the Global Positioning System (G.P.S.), and other technologies to synchronize time on our many online devices. The time kept by precise and closely aligned atomic clocks, for instance, can be broadcast via G.P.S. to numerous receivers, including those in cell towers; those receivers can be attached to N.T.P. servers that then distribute the time across devices linked together by the Internet, almost all of which run N.T.P. (Atomic clocks can also directly feed the time to N.T.P. servers.) The protocol operates on billions of devices, coördinating the time on every continent. Society has never been more synchronized.
For decades, Mills was the person who decided how N.T.P. should work (though he disputes the suggestion that he acted with total sovereignty). … But his tenure is coming to an end.
At 84 years old, Mills has apparently garnered reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon. I suppose he's allowed; he's been the only one maintaining this massive chronal apparatus all these years. Open-source internet infrastructure was nowhere near as widespread when Mills began building his time-baby in the late 70s/early 80s, and he's reportedly been slow to adapt. Meanwhile, the one pseudo-successor that Mills trained is also looking to get out of the Internet Time Keeping business.
So who will be left to calculate all the leap-seconds and sped-up planetary rotation elements that mess with our clock calculations, in order to keep the internet in chrono-sync?
The Thorny Problem of Keeping the Internet's Time [Nate Hopper / The New Yorker]