Permission to Synchronise

Tom West, c.1966 | Image: Jessamyn West, at Flickr

When he wasn’t designing incredibly precise clocks at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in the 1960s, Tom West could often be found travelling the world with one in his possession, on his way to accurately set the time at a foreign satellite observatory. Unsurprisingly, suspicions were sometimes aroused during his trips to far-flung areas; one particular visit to synchronise the clocks at a Colombian observatory even resulting in his imprisonment as a result of what was thought to be a secret weapon in his luggage.

Advances in technology have since negated the need for such journeys, and letters like the one below now serve as a reminder of a time when the very keeping of time itself was, quite charmingly, an incredibly time-consuming business.

(Update, 22/05/11: Tom West sadly passed away on the 19th of May, just a day after this letter was featured. My thoughts are with Jessamyn and her family.)

Transcript follows. Huge thanks to Mr. West’s daughter, Jessamyn West, for allowing me to use these images.



2 March, 1966

Victor Sanchez-Mesas
Consul General of Spain
Consulate of Spain
326 Dartmouth Street
Boston, Massachusetts

Dear Sir:

Mr. J. Thomas West, member of the staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, has been assigned to travel to Spain on official business to install and synchronize an electronic clock at our Astrophysical Observing Station at San Fernando, Spain.

Mr. West will be handcarrying a portable clock which he will use to set the clock at the station in synchronism with those at the National Bureau of Standards. He will arrive in Spain at Madrid via Ethiopian Airlines on or about April 15 and will leave on or about April 25 via Iberia Airlines. Would you kindly issue a consular certificate to allow the temporary importation of the portable clock in and out of Spain.

Your assistance in this matter is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely yours,


P. R. Clark, Manager
Administrative Support
Satellite Tracking and Data
Acquisition Department