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The Flying Clock

Story by Kathy Jo Lynne, Photos by Ron Huckins

As I turned into the driveway of LaThare Bodily’s home in Eagle, Idaho, I never dreamed I would leave nearly two hours later with a whole new appreciation of the smart phone I used to schedule my appointment with LaThare and my GPS system which guided me there. I would soon learn how a fleet of lost ships in the West Indies in 1707, and the spacecraft landing missed by over 200 miles in 1962, and now, my exact location in this tree-lined driveway were actually related through the measurement of time.  In the early 1960’s, LaThare Bodily, who was an Electrical Engineer for Hewlett-Packard, played an instrumental role in answering two very important questions in history which connected these events.  “How do we create a clock to measure time with absolute precision?” and “How do we transport that time to other locations for exact synchronization in order to prevent further errors in navigation and spacecraft landings?”  In answering these questions, maybe we could even land a man on the moon.Early timepieces were pendulum driven, followed by the development of electronic oscillators.  In the early 1960’s, scientists discovered that if you use the energy from the oscillator to “excite” certain atoms (cesium being one), the variance is no more than one microsecond, and hence, the atomic clock was born.  Now that we could measure time precisely, how could we transport that time in order to synchronize time world-wide?  Enter Hewlett-Packard’s team of physicists, engineers, and other specialists led by LaThare Bodily as Project Manager.

LaThare said, “They let me hire a whole bunch of top notch engineers….and I became the cheerleader of the team.”  This is a humble statement.  LaThare actually designed the quartz oscillating “flywheel” for the 5060A Cesium Beam Frequency Standard and he displayed extreme fortitude in leading his team.  This team transported the first portable “Flying Clock” in four different trips over three and a half years, flying to more than forty countries and over one hundred locations to synchronize time based on this atomic clock.  The clock was small enough (around sixty-five pounds) to sit next to LaThare in a passenger seat of an airplane, had its own passport, and was powered by an internal battery system.  It was also wired to run on any type of available power, even a cigarette lighter.

The stories abound and surround each trip. Some of them grew from the unfounded fears of the word “atomic” even though the clock had no fission capabilities.  On one return flight, LaThare was strapping the clock in its seat when he was interrupted by the captain who instructed him to quell the fears of a woman on the flight.  LaThare took a seat next to her and spent the whole flight explaining the details of the clock.  Upon landing, he heard a huge crash coming from his “passenger” seat area. His heart fell to his stomach.  He realized that upon his distraction, he had neglected to finish strapping in the clock and it had crashed into the bulkhead causing minor damage to the plane but not the clock.  The “Flying Clock” went on ticking without dropping a nanosecond!

LaThare has chaired the Eagle Fun Days Parade, played Santa Claus at a local nursing home, and today he lives a quiet life with his wife Karen, except when visited by their 41 grandchildren and over 70 great-grandchildren.

So, the next time you pick up your smart phone, please recall that this humble gentleman was instrumental in creating your ability to Google the nearest coffee shop, post your restaurant location on Facebook, and even navigate your quickest detour during rush hour traffic. When you do, maybe you could send him a silent note of appreciation.