A GPS Frequency Standard For When The Timing Has To Be Right

A metrology geek will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their measurements are the best, their instruments the most accurate, and their calibration spot-on. There was a time when for time-and-frequency geeks this would have been a difficult job, but with the advent of GPS satellites overhead carrying super-accurate atomic clocks it’s surprisingly easy to be right on-frequency. [Land-boards] have a GPS 10 MHz clock that’s based around a set of modules.

Since many GPS modules have a 10 MHz output one might expect that this one to simply hook a socket to the module and have done, but instead it uses another of their projects, a fast edge pulse generator with the GPS output as its oscillator, as a buffer and signal conditioner. Add to that an QT Py microcontroller board to set up the GPS, and there you have a standalone 10 MHz source to rival any standard. Full details can be found on the project’s wiki, and the firmware can be found on GitHub.

Careful with your exploration of standard frequencies, for that can lead down a rabbit hole.

VFD clock with wood case

Captivating Clock Puts Endangered Displays On Display

The DT-1704A VFD is straight from the 1976 Radio Shack Catalog
The DT-1704 VFD as seen the 1976 Radio Shack Catalog. The “A” version has no substrate, making the VFD fully clear for added effect.

When you have a small stock of vacuum fluorescent displays (VFDs) straight out of the 1976 Radio Shack catalog, you might sit around wondering what to do with them. When [stepawayfromthegirls] found out that his stash of seven DT-1704A tubes may be the last in existence, there was no question. They must be displayed! [stepawayfromthegirls]’ mode of display is this captivating clock build. Four VFDs with their aqua colored elements are set against a black background in a bespoke wooden case. Looking under the hood, the beauty only increases.

VFD Clock Wiring is almost as stunning as the clock itself
VFD Clock Wiring is nearly as stunning as the clock itself.

Keeping the build organized was not an easy task because the tubes are designed in such a way that each segment must be individually controlled. The needed I/O duties are provided by an Arduino Mega 2560 Pro (Embed). 28 2n3904’s each with their two resistors serve as drivers for each VFD segment.

The output of a  24 V AC transformer left over from the 1980s is rectified to 34 V of DC power which is then regulated to 27 V to power the tubes. Switching power supplies provide 6 V to the Arduino and 1.3 V to the filaments. If you look closely, you’ll also see a GPS module so that the clock doesn’t need to be set. To future-proof the clock against daylight savings time adjustments, a potentiometer on the back of the case allows the user to set custom hour offsets without editing any code.

We think the end result is a remarkably clean, simple, and elegant clock that he will be proud of for many years to come!

If VFD clock builds are your thing, then you’ll enjoy this Network Attached VFD Clock and a Mini VFD Clock with floating display.  And while not VFD based, we’d be silly to leave out the Boat Anchor Nixie Clock with enough knobs, switches, and buttons to delight even the fussiest of hacker.


Portable GPS Time Server Powered By The ESP8266

Most Hackaday readers will be familiar with the idea of a network time server; a magical box nestled away in some distant data center that runs the Network Time Protocol (NTP) and allows us to conveniently synchronize the clocks in our computers and gadgets. Particularly eager clock watchers can actually rig up their own NTP server for their personal use, and if you’re a true time aficionado like [Cristiano Monteiro], you might be interested in the portable GPS-controlled time server he recently put together.

The heart of the build is a NEO-6M GPS module which features a dedicated pulse per second (PPS) pin. The ESP8266 combines the timestamp from the GPS messages and the PPS signal to synchronize itself with the atomic clock aboard the orbiting satellite. To prevent the system from drifting too far out of sync when it doesn’t have a lock on the GPS signal, [Cristiano] is using a DS3231 I2C real-time clock module that features a high accuracy temperature-compensated crystal oscillator (TCXO).

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Keeping Time With Blinkenlights

If we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that hackers like weird clocks, and they love packing as many multicolored LEDs into a device as is humanly possible. Combine both of those concepts into one project, and you’ve got a perfect storm. So as far as unnecessarily complex timepieces go, we’d say the “Crazy Clock 4” built by [Fearless Night] ranks up there among the all-time greats.

This Arduino Pro Mini powered clock syncs the current time via GPS, with a temperature compensated DS3231 RTC to keep it on the straight and narrow between satellite downlinks. Once the clock has the correct time, how do you read it? Well, at the top you’ve got a basic numerical readout for the normies, and next to that there’s a circular LED display that looks like it could double as a sci-fi movie prop. On the lower level there’s a binary clock for the real show-offs, and as if that wasn’t enough, there’s even dual color-coded analog meters to show the hours and minutes.

[Fearless Night] has provided everything you need to follow along at home, from the Arduino source code to the 3D models of the case and Gerber files for the custom PCB. Personally we think just the top half of the clock would be more than sufficient for our timekeeping needs. If nothing else it should help save some energy, as the clock currently pulls an incredible 20 watts with all those LEDs firing off.

Should you decide to take a walk down memory lane and check out some of the other interesting LED clocks we’ve featured in the past, you’d be busy for quite awhile. But for our money, it’s still hard to beat the impossibly obtuse single-LED clock.

Accurate Time On Your Pi, The Extreme Way

The Raspberry Pi is an extremely versatile little computer, but even its most ardent fans would acknowledge that there are some areas in which its hardware is slightly lacking. One of these is in the field of timing, the little board has no real-time clock. Users must rely on the on-board crystal oscillator, which is good enough as a microprocessor clock but subject to the vagaries of temperature as it is, not so much as a long-term timepiece.

[Tobias Mädel] has tackled this problem in a rather unusual way, by dispensing entirely with the crystal oscillator on an older Pi model  and instead using a clock derived from a GPS source. The source he’s used is a Leo Bodnar mini precision GPS reference clock, which includes a low-jitter synthesiser that can be set to the Pi’s 19.2 MHz required clock. Unexpectedly he also required a simple LC low-pass filter which he’s made on a sheet of PCB material, because the Pi at first appeared to be picking up a harmonic frequency. The Pi now has a clock that’s sufficiently stable for tasks such as WSPR transmission without constant referral to NTP or other timing sources to keep it on-track.

It’s a short write-up, but it brings with it a further link to a discussion of different time synchronisation techniques on a Pi including using a kernel module to synchronise with the more common GPS-derived 1PPS signal. We’ve not seen anyone else do this particular mod to a Pi before, but conversely we’ve seen a Pi provide an RF time reference to something else.

What’s More Accurate Than A GPS Clock? The OpenPPS GPS Clock

Making a GPS clock is a relatively straightforward process on the face of it. Buy a GPS module for a few dollars, hook it up to a microcontroller board of your choice, pick the appropriate library and write a bit of code, et voila! A clock with time-wonk bragging rights!

Of course, your GPS clock will always tell the right time, but it won’t be really right. Your microcontroller will introduce all sorts of timing errors and jitter, so at best it’ll only be nearly right. [Rick MacDonald] has been striving to quantify and minimise these errors in his OpenPPS project, which aims to be as accurate a GPS time and frequency reference as possible.

In a very comprehensive multi-page write-up, he details his progression, through the GPS modules he used, his experience with timing jitter when he used an ESP32 alone to process their output, and then his experiments with an FPGA and then temperature-compensated oscillators. It moves from being a mere description of a GPS clock into a fascinating run-down of both GPS timing itself and the development pitfalls he encountered along the way. At the end of it all he has a GPS clock in a smart 3D-printed enclosure which he admits as yet doesn’t do anything more than tell the time, but as he points out it’s a clock with minimised jitter, delay, and drift, and it remains an ongoing project that will evolve into a full-blown time and frequency standard.

If your taste in GPS clocks is far more simple, there are plenty of projects showing how a more basic one can be produced.

A Talking Clock For The 21st Century

The Talking Clock service is disappearing, and it’s quite possible that few of you will be aware of its passing. One of the staples of twentieth-century technology, the Talking Clock service was the only universally consumer-available source of accurate time information away from hourly radio time signals in the days before cheap radio-controlled clocks, or GPS. You’d dial (on a real dial, naturally!) a telephone number, to be greeted with a recorded voice telling you what the time would be at the following beep. Clocks were set, phone companies made a packet, and everybody was happy with their high-tech audio horology.

[Nick Sayer] used the USNO Master Clock telephone feed to see in the New Year, but had to make do with a voice from another time zone. It seems that there are no services remaining that provide one in Pacific time. His solution to the problem for a future year? Make his own Talking Clock, one that derives its time reference from GPS.

At its heart is a SkyTraq Venus838LPx miniature GPS module coupled to an ATMega32E5 microcontroller. The speech comes in the form of pre-recorded samples stored on an SD card. There is a small on-board amplifier to drive a single speaker. For extreme authenticity perhaps it could be attached to a GSM mobile phone module to provide a dial-up service, but he’s got everything he needs for a New Years Eve.

Want to hear what that that bit of nostalgia sounded like? Check out the quick clip below. As for modern replacements, we’ve had at least one talking clock here in the past, but not one using GPS.

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