Springing forward as we fall back – why I like GMT!

Alarm Clock Face

It’s that day!  The last Sunday in October when ‘the clocks go back’.  For many, the official start of winter rather than the end of British Summer Time (or Daylight Saving Time for non-Brits).  We’ve had the ‘time discussion’ here at Pritchard Towers; that’s when my wife says ‘What time is it’ and I explain that it’s 7am GMT, 8am BST, if it was yesterday it would be 8am right now….

At least the computers sort themselves out these days; I’m old enough to remember when it was necessary to manually change the clock on computers as well as on the range of mechanical and electronic clocks we have.  Actually, today and the Sunday in the spring when the clocks go forward are two of the few days in the calendar that all the clocks in the house stand a chance of being at roughly the same time.  Throughout the rest of the year slippage and stoppage take their toll!

and I’ve maybe come across a new definition of a computer – something smart enough to adjust it’s own time.  I was quite surprised this morning when my Crackberry had adjusted itself….that’s one phone less to change, I guess!

I know that there’s a great deal of pressure these days to standardise on Daylight Saving Time / BST.  I guess that there’s a lot to be said for that – I’m not, however, going to spend any time this morning debating that contentious issue.  Lots of people much more capable than I have, and with greater knowledge of the issues involved, have taxed their little grey cells to no avail.  No, this blog is purely an explanation of why I’m personally rather attached to Greenwich Mean Time.

It all goes back to my childhood – when I was about 9 years old I started getting interested in listening to the radio late at night to hear foreign stations.  I had a rather nice little book – I think it was called the Wireless World Guide To Broadcasting Stations – that listed radio stations on short wave, medium wave and longwave radio.  The ‘far away’ stuff tended to be on short wave, and at that stage I didn’t have a short wave radio.  However, it was possible to hear stations from North America on Medium wave, which was covered by my father’s ‘Ecko’ transistor radio.  It had a little aerial socket and plugging a wire in to it allowed me to hear many more medium wave stations than I would normally…but the laws of physics firmly stated ‘all the far away stuff comes in late at night’.  And so we start getting on to the business with GMT and the lost hour.

As a kid I was a morning person; typically by 1030pm (even on non-school nights) I was falling asleep and ready for bed.   In the summer, 1030pm was 9-30pm GMT, and the generally accepted rules of physics stated that the earliest I could expect to hear a station in North America would be, if I was lucky – 11-30 or midnight GMT.   Now, at a push, by taking a nap I could manage to keep my eyes open until about midnight BST, but it just wasn’t late enough.  I had worked out that the best combination of geography and frequency that would allow me to hear North America as early as possible was a station called CJYQ at Saint John’s,  Newfoundland, and so my Holy Grail of medium wave listening was discovered.

radiodialSo I started eagerly looking forward to the magic day in October when the clocks went back.  The day when 11-30 at night really was 2330 hrs GMT.   The project to hear North America was on!  The radio I was using was a nice enough receiver but the frequency markings were pretty inaccurate.  This was in the days before digital readouts – as you turned the tuning control a rather clever contraption of pulleys, springs and string moved a pointer across a long glass ‘dial’ with wavelength markings on it, which I then converted to frequency.  In order to ‘home in’ on CJYQ it was necessary to find a couple of easily identifiable European stations just above and just below the frequency for CJYQ, as there was no way I could tune the receive to it’s operating frequency directly. 

Once I’d got this done, then it was simply a case of slowly tuning between these two stations until I heard a Candaian accent.  Unfortunately, the emphasis was on slowly tuning, and repeatedly….the signals from North America tended to fade up and down very slowly  and so it was a case of being on frequency when the signal was loud. 

After a couple of weekends of propping my eyes open between 2300 and midnight..and a couple of times until 1am – I have no idea how I managed the latter, as at that time 10 year olds in my house didn’t drink coffee – I managed to get the station.  I was able to listen to it (ear squashed against the loudspeaker as I didn’t have any headphones) for a couple of minutes before it faded off in to the darkness again.  Just to be sure, I listened in again around the half hour and on the hour, hoping for a station identification announcement, and was rewarded by one!

The pleasure from the fleeting reception of that station was repeated on numerous occasions after that first time, with stations from all over the East Coast of North America working their way in to my ‘listening log’ through my adolescence.  And yes, I think all of them were heard in the winter – more a feature, I now know, of radio wave propagation than anything else – but I kept a superstitious belief that it was all due to the clocks going back to GMT.  On many occasions sleep got the better of me; I’d wake up with a loudspeaker-grille pattern on my cheek where I’d dozed off….

And what’s really weird is that even now, when the clocks go back, I start hankering to sit down on a dark night, cup of tea, radio frequency guide and headphones, and listen again for those tiny transatlantic signals.

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