The Pips - Medley - Greenwich Time Signal

Feb 02, 2012, 10:18 PM

The pips signal the start of so many great moments in radio. A pause amidst the energy. A grave announcement. A simple sound amongst the complex. Silence separated.

The tones have been sounded since February the 5th 1924; an idea of good old John Reith, who was not averse to precision. The Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, sorted out some mechanical clocks in the Royal Greenwich Observatory after chatting it over with the chap who invented the pendulum clock. Handy to have friends like that. Two clocks were used, in case one broke down. Belt and braces. It’s the unique way they’re funded. Mind you, they only cost twenty quid each.

The equipment later moved to Surrey- and then to Herstmonceux Castle. The clever thing was (and your engineers can explain this. Probably at length): they turned the sound inside out, so the pips were actually gaps in the constant 1kHz tone. So, if the line went down between pipping time, the piercing constant noise would cease. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t there until, well, until it wasn’t there.

The last pip used to be the same length as the others, but from the start of 1972 they made it longer so that you knew it was the last one. (Counting pips was not the answer owing to those rare occasions where time catching up with itself needed an extra pip. I’d love to have seen the ‘beware - last pip is now longer-‘ memo. Bet there was one.)

On their 66th anniversary, the BBC moved to making its own pips. Maybe one day it will be an independent production again. I’ll pitch.

They’ve been used in a variety of ways over the years. A bored Noel Edmonds used to cheer himself up whilst on Radio One breakfast, usually by getting the last pip to hit the vocal. On this audio though, you’ll hear him indulge a little more; before an unfortunate Radio 4 clanger (beware- offensive word) where continuity announcer, Peter Jefferson, made his displeasure at tripping over his words all too clear (language alert); and then a piece of delicious Eddie Mair who converted his own pip mishap into a piece to fill a convenient gap later in PM.

After 28 years in radio, I spoke up to the Pips for the first time at BBC Radio Nottingham. It makes one shiver. My remaining ambitions include saying 'Radio 4'; and also breaking through the security barriers at the BBC World Service just to say 'This is London' just before Lilliburlero.