David Mills Died Aged 85 newyorker.com

David Mills, inventor of Network Time Protocol, died this week aged 85.

When I saw the news first at Ars Technica, I confess I had no idea who this person was and, while I was vaguely aware of the importance of synchronized clocks in computing, I had no full appreciation for the work involved or how fraught it is.

Nate Hopper, in a 2022 New Yorker article:

Should Internet time synchronization run on rigorously tested and battle-worn but whimsical and arguably bloated code that someone may still struggle to fully understand, even after devoting decades to it? Or should it be based on a nimbler, less pedantic standard designed by people who can’t agree on what’s best? There won’t be one answer: no open-source author has enforcement power over what implementations companies and system administrators choose to deploy. (According to Stenn, much of the Internet still utilizes version three of N.T.P., which was published in 1992.) Finding consensus can be difficult for both clocks and people. […]

This article reminded me of a list of falsehoods programmers believe about time, which I return to read every now now and again. Not because it is something I need to reference for my work, but only because it is a good reminder of how we often take for granted the most basic building blocks of society.

Something as seemingly straightforward as keeping track of time is, as it turns out, unbelievably complicated. Even if one knows this fact, it can be difficult to fully grasp. Mills was a key part of a group of people who were ultimately able to get enough things synchronized to make modern life possible.