Greenwich Time Ball

It’s one of those wonderful oddities of London which makes our city so vibrant. In the same way that we don’t actually need beefeaters marching around a dead royal palace with a bunch of keys every night, an annual dinner for two warring livery companies to settle medieval differences or a bloke in black to open parliament every session, there is no real necessity for us to squint up at the Greenwich skyline at 1.00pm to set our watches, but if we ever catch the Greenwich Time Ball at that microsecond when it drops, we feel a little shiver of excitement; a little link with our maritime past.

It all goes back to that old chestnut of longitude, which I promise I’m not going into today. The problem had been more or less solved by the end of the 18th Century, but none of John Harrison’s splendid clocks was going to stand a cat’s chance in hell if they weren’t set correctly to start with. Trouble was, that they didn’t have radio-controlled digital timepieces in those days. A few people, such as ships’ captains had clocks and watches, and the ships themselves, by the 19th Century, had chronometers, but they were useless if they couldn’t be set.

They’d been experimenting with the idea of time balls in Portsmouth and in 1833, it was suggested by one Captain Robert Wauchope that Greenwich would be an ideal place for one for the Thames. John Pond, who was Astronomer Royal at the time, thought it was a great idea and the Admiralty agreed – Greenwich Observatory was well-placed, up a hill, and with the right instruments to gauge the time accurately. I doubt that Pond was quite as pleased when he realised that it would be the job of the astronomers working there to toil up the stairs of the little tower, haul the ball to the top of the weather vane then drop it at one o’clock every day, rain or shine, when they could be doing a million other, more exciting things.

Nevertheless, the world’s first public time signal was duly manufactured by Maudslay, Son & Field. A giant red ball, with a winch, was installed. The ball was originally made of leather, which must have become like lead when sodden with winter rain.

I’m not going to go into the concept of standard time and GMT today – do try to contain your excitement, I’ll come to it ;-) Suffice to say that the Observatory was central to anything that went on throughout the 19th Century to do with Railway Time, Local Time or any other time. But all through that time the Greenwich Time Ball was hoisted to the top of its little pole at two minutes to, then dropped precisely at one o’clock. As the years passed, telegraphic communication helped to let people across the globe know what the time was, but Greenwich remained at the centre.

Today the ball is automated – there are no more astronomers left to winch it up and let it drop. But it continues to do so by machine, every day like – well, like clockwork, I guess. It’s aluminium these days, but still a big bugger. I heard they had to take it down for a spruce-up recently and it proved exceeding unwieldy.

Why 1.00pm rather than midday? At first I was told that it was because the astronomers were always doing important experiments at midday when the sun is at its apex, but more recently I’ve heard that it’s because in order to know the exact time you have to know noon. Since you’re actually waiting for noon, it’s difficult to be really accurate, so once the astronomers saw noon, they could actually count more accurately to 1.00pm.

I am terribly fond of our time ball. Not least because it’s discreet. If you don’t know to look for it you might miss it completely. If you need the time it’s there (set your watch precisely “1.00pm” the moment the ball drops) if you don’t need to know, you don’t get bothered. As a local resident, I guess I’m quite glad I’m not in Edinburgh where 1.00 is signalled with a cannon…

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