'Slave' clocks' days are numbered as university decolonises curriculum

The Gate Clock at the Greenwich Meridian in Greenwich Park - Richard Baker
The Gate Clock at the Greenwich Meridian in Greenwich Park - Richard Baker

Time is up for the terms “master” and “slave”, a university has ruled, as changes are made to the technical vocabulary traditionally used to describe types of clock.

Timepieces often fall into the categories of either an accurate “master” device or the “slave” devices which follow it, in the manner of multiple clocks in schools or offices, but these traditional terms have come under scrutiny.

Clocks will no longer be referred to as "master" or "slave", the University of Salford has decided, as part of efforts to “decolonise the curriculum”.

A lecturer for the university’s music technology course raised the issue of horological terms in a “Decolonising the Curriculum” PowerPoint presentation seen by The Telegraph, which states that “language has traditionally been [about] setting up a ‘master clock’ that all the other devices ‘slave’ to”.

Some academics have sought to move away from terms associated with slavery, and Salford has confirmed that it has decided to drop traditional terminology for clocks.

A spokeswoman said: “Recently the music technology sector has sought to change some of its language.

“At the university, industry is very much embedded in everything we do, hence we are following their guidance when it comes to the correct choice of terminology. This is a universal language that naturally feeds into education.”

The university has not confirmed which terms it will use in place of master and slave, but provided an outside contextual article on the issue which suggested terms like “leader” and “follower” could be used in place of words “referring back to slavery”.

The move comes as part of changes brought in to “decolonise the curriculum”, the process of making courses more diverse and interesting for people across different cultures, which has seen sonnets demoted in creative writing assessment at Salford because they are “products of white Western culture”.

Follows trend in coding

Salford has said in internal material that “decolonised” and “inclusive curricula” better “reflect and cater for a diverse society”, with staff advised that courses can be improved by using materials “that are accessible, and familiar to all students”.

Dropping “master” and “slave” also follows a trend in coding, with technology companies seek to drop the word “master” (for a main code or process) which typically controls a “slave”.

The changes at Salford go against more than a century of of tradition, with master and slave clocks dating back to the 19th century. Early examples include the Shepherd’s Gate Clock installed at Greenwich in 1852, which has been used by the public ever since to set their watches to Greenwich Meantime.

The clock facing the public on the site is a “slave” clock, one that has its display dictated by a highly accurate “master clock”, which in the case of Greenwich is inside the observatory. One communicates to the other through electrical wiring.

This system of having a network of lesser clocks being synchronised by a more advanced and accurate “master” became common, particularly in large organisations where employers or students needed to be operating on precisely the same time.