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Gernot Maria Rudolph Winkler (1922–2016)

Published onDec 01, 2016
Gernot Maria Rudolph Winkler (1922–2016)

Gernot Maria Rudolph Winkler was born October 17, 1922 in Frohnleiten (Styria) Austria, the son of Gustav and Eleanor (Schneider) Winkler. He had an interest in astronomy from age 12, when he came across a book by German spaceflight pioneer Hermann Oberth. He was also influenced by the science fiction writer Jules Verne.

As a youth he was a radio amateur proficient in Morse code, which enabled him to avoid front line duty when he was drafted, much against his will, to the German army. He spent seven years in the army, two of them as a prisoner of war in American custody in southern Italy. Returning to Austria in 1947, he immediately resumed his studies at the University of Graz. There his interests evolved toward the mathematical sciences, including geophysics, physics, and astronomy. His PhD. in 1952 was on theoretical physics, specifically the mathematical modeling of coupled electromagnetic cavities used to support the microwave engineering industry. He was also associated with the Astronomy Department’s Solar Observatory, Kanzelhoehe.

Dr. Winkler came to the United States in 1956 and began work with his fellow Austrian, Fritz Reder, in the microwave resonance branch of the U. S. Army Signal Corps, Monmouth, NJ, where they were supporting work on the first atomic clocks, the Atomichron, for the National Radio Company. These devices had a stability of one part in 1011, and became the first commercially-produced frequency standards. He earned six patents for his personal contributions to maser and oscillator stabilization. He also worked on ionospheric radio transmission, organizing and participating in several expeditions to the Greenland ice cap, as well as Antarctica. Beginning with the fall of 1956, Winkler began coming to the U. S. Naval Observatory (USNO) for a series of consultations with Time Service Director, William Markowitz, about the frequency to be used for cesium atomic clocks.

In 1966, on Markowitz’s retirement, Observatory Director Kaj Strand invited Winkler to apply for Markowitz’s position as Director of Time Service at the Naval Observatory, and he reported for duty in October of that year. Although the Observatory had atomic clocks under Markowitz, a Western Electric 2.5 megahertz quartz crystal clock, calibrated against the cesium standard, still served as the Master Clock. One of Winkler’s first actions as Director was to make the Cesium atomic clock the Master Clock, thus transitioning the Observatory to the atomic clock era. From then on, under his leadership, the Time Service Department and the USNO grew and prospered.

During his tenure one of the primary goals was building a Master Clock system second to none, and another was to disseminate its time to the nation and the world. In doing so he published 86 papers. As an administrator, he secured funding for development, kick-start purchases, and operational use of a variety of innovations, such as 5071 Cesium frequency standards, Hydrogen masers, Mercury stored-ion clocks, and Two Way Satellite Time Transfer (TWSTT). This was done not only by incorporating the latest atomic clocks as they were developed, but also by increasing the number of clocks and applying sophisticated statistical techniques and computer technology to produce the time scale. He introduced the Naval Observatory time transfer service using portable atomic clocks, and later pioneered in using GPS for the same purpose. In collaboration with others, the USNO tested relativity by flying several atomic clocks around the world in each direction, and later by using microwaves reflected off the Washington Cathedral to test the isotropy of the speed of light.

He oversaw improvements in the observational methods and determination of Earth orientation parameters by developing the world’s largest photographic zenith tube (a 26-inch PZT) and beginning the routine use of connected element interferometry. During his tenure data acquired from lunar and satellite laser ranging, and very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) were used to improve the Naval Observatory's Earth orientation data services. With support from Naval Research Laboratory, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, a correlator for the analysis of VLBI observations was installed at USNO, leading to the establishment of the Earth Orientation Department at USNO. One of his achievements was to convince the Air Force that the USNO should be the source and monitor of time for the GPS system.

Dr. Winkler was a leader in international organizations dealing with time. He served on numerous national and international boards and commissions. He led the International Consultative Committee for Radio communications (CCIR) activity in the definition of UTC with leap seconds in 1972, which established atomic time as the worldwide time standard. He also led International Astronomical Union (IAU) activities concerning the specifications of the determinations of time scales.

He co-founded the Precise Time and Time Interval (PTTI) Systems and Application Meetings. Starting from a small group of government agencies in 1969, it grew to be one of the core forums where practical timekeeping knowledge could be shared and discussed. The complete proceedings through 2012 can be found on-line on Starting with 2013, PTTI meetings have become part of the Institute of Navigation’s program, and now known as ION-PTTI.

He remained the Director of Time Service for thirty years, until his retirement in 1995. For several years thereafter he retained an office at the USNO, and also worked with Innovative Solutions International as a consultant in the FAA’s GPS enhancement, the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS).

To those in Time Service, Gernot was an inspiring leader in every way. A strong and supportive manager, aided by his “von-Braun” accent, he always encouraged his employees to do their best. One of his favorite techniques was to praise someone behind his back about something very specific, because he knew the word would get back to him/her. He would follow his employees’ progress, and would welcome them into his small, densely-packed but well-organized office to talk to them about it. As a role model Winkler was an intellectual giant who was happy to share. Many learned timekeeping from his technical review articles, and very much enjoyed learning philosophy from his almost-as-technical essays on not just the nature of time but of such concepts as deism, determinism, realism, subjectivism, monism, and positivism. Some of these are available in the form of essays at his website

Awards and Honors: In 1970 he was elected a Fellow of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). In 1984 he was awarded the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Executive in the Senor Executive Service. In 1988 at the International Frequency Control Symposium, he was awarded the I.I. Rabi Award. In 1994, at the 26th Annual Precise Time and Time Interval (PTTI) Applications and Planning Meeting, he received the Distinguished Service Award.

Winkler was preceded in death by his beloved wife Renate Anna Franziska Winkler, née Strafella (Nov. 3, 1923 - March 31, 2014). He eulogized her at He is survived by his children Vic and Trixi Winkler.

For more information, see Steven Dick’s interview with Dr. Winkler in 1989, undertaken as part of the U. S. Naval Observatory history, Sky and Ocean Joined (Cambridge, 2003). The full transcript is available in the Observatory Library in Washington, D.C. Award citations can be found at and


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