Today we take telling the time for granted. We only have to glance at our phones, or for those of us who still wear watches, our wrists to get it. In the early 1800s though, this wasn’t the case. While mechanical time pieces were in use, only the very rich could afford them. This meant only the very rich were able to tell the time.
In the early 19th century, clocks and watches were status symbols owned by the wealthy. In a rapidly industrialising nation such as Britain this was becoming a problem. Limited access to accurate time meant that towns and villages a few miles apart were operating on completely different time zones.
Furthermore, shipping, which was vital to the expansion of the British Empire, was still an incredibly complex and difficult task. Ships’ navigators had no electronic or communication equipment and had to use marine chronometers to calculate their position while at sea. However, in order to use a chronometer they needed to know Greenwich Mean Time.
And so, time balls were constructed. The first in 1829 in Portsmouth, England followed by one in Greenwich four years later.
Looking a little like a large olive speared by a giant toothpick, time balls were wooden or metal spheres that travelled up and down a large mast.
They were affixed to the towers or steeples of the highest elevated buildings in the area so as to be visible to ships in port as well as citizens.
In Greenwich, the ball would be raised to half mast at 12:55, it then rose to the top of the mast at 12:58 before dropping at 1pm. This provided a clear signal, to everyone looking of course, that it was exactly 1pm GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).
This was essential information for the navigators of the many ships nearby as, using their chronometers, they could now calculate longitude and therefore their exact position while at sea.
In Australia, then a British colony, it became law that both Brisbane and Sydney be operating on the same time zone, 10 hours ahead of Greenwich mean time. And so, time balls were affixed on top of Tower Mill and Sydney Observatory to ensure this was achieved.
In 1866, Brisbane’s time ball was replaced with a time gun, a small cannon fired at 1pm, which allowed those living in more rural locations around the city to be able to keep accurate time also. Still, the copper time ball remains a permanent fixture on the building even though it hasn’t operated for well over a hundred years.
In fact, time balls can still be found atop many buildings around the world, but few are operating. Hundreds of years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll. Take a look around your city or town. If you happen to live by a large river or port, chances are you may find a time ball atop your oldest building.
If you do see one, let it be a reminder that there once was a period in history when you had to be very rich to know the time.
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