The Origins of Grandfather Clocks

A Brief Chronicle of Time – Navigation and the Time-Ball Towers

Author Martin Foster

The time-ball on the Sydney observatory falls every day at 1pm. Perhaps it escapes us that it should be a reminder of who we are and why we are in Australia. For today we use it to signal “time for lunch” or to fire the gun on Fort Denison to frighten the Russians away and excite the tourists.

What a poignant fall from its noble role of giving seafarers the prospect of returning from remote ports without the appalling uncertainties of “dead reckoning” navigation. For dead reckoning was no more than educated guesswork which was treacherously unreliable.

Time is not an intangible concept – “Time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once”. It promises an uncertain future which fleetingly becomes the here-and-now but just as swiftly slips away, generating tangible history in its passing. It is this history and why increasingly accurate measurement of time has been the unseen integrator of historical events which was the origin of seaport time-ball towers around the world.

Time goes by many associations which may be very briefly chronicled as:-

The annual cycle of recurrent celestial star patterns

Seasonal cycles of farming

Moon phases and mystical belief

Stonehenge and the cosmos

Astronomy and the invention of mechanical clocks

Portable clocks evolve into mechanical watches

Navigation and finding the Longitude

Invention of the Marine Chronometer

Communication, radar and the great war

Radar spin-off into the quartz watch

Ultra fine mechanical watches evolve from timekeeping to art

The first of these reach into prehistory without much relevance here. For our story Stonehenge gets closest with the commencement of its construction put at 3200BC. In the 1960's an astrophysicist named Gerald Hawkins computed Stonehenge alignments and concluded that the trilithon stones (three stones in the form of a portal) marked key dates in the megalithic calendar. Although the alignments are a little rubbery, they are accurate enough to have been used by megalithic man for ceremonial and astronomical purposes.

In terms of marking time, nothing scientifically significant happened for another 4000 years and technological advance was at a standstill in Europe. This interregnum saw the introduction of the sundial, hourglass and water clock and it is not until the end of the 10th century AD that a mechanical clock was constructed by Pope Sylvester II.

Early clocks were driven by falling weights. Spring-powered clocks appeared in 1510 made by Peter Henlein, a German locksmith from Nuremberg and this allowed smaller (portable) clocks. Henlein called his clocks "Nuremberg Eggs". Although they slowed down as the mainspring unwound, they were popular among the wealthy due to their smaller size. And now this chronicle widens to involve the Church of Rome and Europe’s maritime nations.

The next century became a period of great scientific advance and was partly driven by the invention of the telescope which revealed the true relationships between the celestial bodies. This informed the heretical proposition taken by Galileo that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the contrary, as insisted by the 1633 Inquisition of the Holy Office of Rome. In 1656, Christian Huygens, a Dutch mathematician, made the first pendulum clock having a natural period of oscillation. Huygens pendulum clock had an error of less than one minute a day, the first time such accuracy had been achieved and he later improved his clock's error to under ten seconds a day.

In 1675 Huygens developed the first sprung balance wheel, allowing 17th century watches to keep time within ten minutes a day. The first reported person to actually wear a watch on the wrist was the French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). With a piece of soft cord, he attached his pocket watch to his wrist. Coincidentally in the same century wealthy European nations put to sea, no longer with any fear of sailing off the edge of a flat earth but without any way of sailing the way back home having lost sight of land for weeks or months at a time. And this is the core of the navigation problem which exercised the finest minds of mathematicians, philosophers and clockmakers for some hundreds of years. Why? Because it compromised their naval war-mongering competency and their ability to trade in far-off ports.

Latitude – the North/South angular position of a ship between the pole and the equator – was easily available with a sextant. The longitude – how far west or east a ship had sailed from its home port – is theoretically simple but fantastically difficult in practice given the understanding of contemporaneous physics and the elusive art of timekeeping at sea. Longitude and time are directly interchangeable, thus 12 o’clock midday at Greenwich is exactly 12 o’clock midnight on the Pacific dateline at 180 deg longitude.

The advent of an appalling loss to English naval might in 1707 was the single critical event which shocked the English Admiralty into coming to grips with the problem of the longitude. On the evening of October 22nd a tragedy of such catastrophic proportions occurred in the Atlantic waters off England that the political, sociological and demographic consequences remain with us today.

Admiral Sir Cloudisley Shovell set sail for England from Gibraltar encountering gales and increasingly rough seas. Approaching the English Channel, visibility dropped so low that his ships could barely see each other through the dense fog – while seas rose, mercilessly buffeting the fleet. The Admiral was convinced he was at the entrance to the English Channel and continued his north-easterly heading. A dissenting sailor who had kept his own reckoning of the ship’s position was promptly hanged from the yardarm for mutiny. The Admiral should have listened.

HMS Association struck the rocks of Gilstone Ledges on the Scilly Isles well west of where Admiral Shovell believed his position to be. A short time later nothing more remained of the mighty HMS Association as huge Atlantic waves pounded the crippled flagship until she was swallowed by the wild, swirling sea. Three more ships followed her with the same chilling result. On that dreadful night only 20 miles from England, 2000 fighting men including the Admiral, lost their lives due to a simple navigational error. Britain paid the horrendous price of losing four of Her Majesty's finest warships with all on board. The political momentum, culminating in the invention of an accurate timepiece which we now know as the Marine Chronometer, started on this night in 1707 and this precision marine clock arguably became one of the most significant mechanical inventions of all time.

The full drama of this saga is best picked up in Dava Sobel’s book Longitude. Sobel’s thrilling story of how John Harrison overcame the many physical challenges and the equally forbidding political problems to finally win the prize after forty years of effort makes for fascinating reading. It is a book which reminds us of the critical importance of the individual throughout history.

Following this disaster, the British Parliament under Queen Anne, passed the British Longitude Act of 1714, with a prize of 20,000 English pounds for anyone who could find longitude to an accuracy of half a degree or a time-keeping accuracy of three seconds in 24 hours. It was an immense amount of money, the equivalent of many millions of dollars today.

Sobel explains the quest as “Longitude requires that you be able to tell the time where you are and also at that starting point of your ship’s journey”. Pendulum clocks cannot work in the unstable motion at sea let alone the widely varying temperature, pressure and humidity. The problem of keeping accurate time on board ship was so daunting that as eminent a personage as Isaac Newton did not believe the problem was solvable. This huge fortune did not go unnoticed and astronomers, mathematicians, magicians and alchemists all contributed to the myriad schemes put before the Board of Longitude.

Worth relating is one by Sir Kenelm Digby, famous for being the inventor of the process of making todays domestic ginger beer. Sir Kenelm made an incredible discovery while in a remote part of France. He called his discovery "Powder of Sympathy". It was a miraculous powder that could cure a wound even, it seems, at a great distance. If someone were wounded and his powder were applied to a bandage from the wound, it could heal the wound.

Sir Kenelm proposed that the captain takes an injured dog aboard his ship when he sets sail. At noon each day a little Powder of Sympathy was applied to a bandage that was once on the dog's wound. Even though the dog might be 5000 miles away, he would yelp with healing pain from the powder when it was applied to the bandage back in Greenwich Observatory at a precise hour. Now if the captain knew what time it was at Greenwich then the longitude of the ship was known by its difference in time from Greenwich.   It is recorded that the Board, regretfully, declined to enter into discussion with Sir Kenelm.

In 1773, at age 80 and after more than forty years of work, Harrison finally received both the prize money and the recognition of having solved the longitude problem. He died three years later, on his 83rd birthday. His specific chronometer design was not actually adopted. But the great value of what Harrison did was to demonstrate that it was possible by mechanical means to keep this high order of timekeeping at sea.

Subsequently others quickly took up the challenge and England forcefully preserved its sea-going superiority of the British Royal Navy by formal replacement of the perilous dead reckoning with the Marine Chronometer. A chronometer industry flourished in England under Admiralty patronage and global journeys were possible to far flung places including the penal colonies in Australia, then known as New Holland, the Dutch having been here before. (Subsequently chronometers reached the zenith of their production in WWII. With the onset of war, the US Navy needed chronometers in large numbers and the first Hamilton chronometer was delivered to the Navy in February 1942. During the next year, Hamilton production increased to 500 chronometers per month.) Any ship leaving any port needs only to know the local longitude/time and relate this to the shipboard chronometers to be able to find the longitude when at sea.

In 1824 Captain Robert Wauchope RN proposed that local time could be conveyed to all the ships leaving port by an exact time-ball in a prominent place. He suggested a sphere, which slides up and down a vertical mast and which can be abruptly dropped at an appointed hour – it is raised halfway up the mast at 12.55pm, to the top at 12.58pm and drops at 1pm precisely. The first time-ball was erected at Portsmouth in 1829. After Portsmouth another one was installed in 1833 at the Greenwich Observatory by Astronomer Royal John Pond which has dropped at 1pm every day since then. Around 150 public time-balls are believed to have been installed around the world after the success at Portsmouth and Greenwich. And now we come full circle to the falling time-ball on the Sydney Observatory.

Large ports such as Sydney were host to many ships servicing the needs of the colony and its squalling, shadowy inhabitants. Sydney’s first Government Astronomer, William Scott, was appointed in 1856 and the building of Sydney observatory was commenced in that year.

The observatory, built with Sydney sandstone and designed in the style of the Florentine Renaissance, was completed in 1858 including its time-ball. This was visible to all ships in the harbour. Interrupted only by time-out for repairs, it has fallen daily at 1pm ever since. The Sydney time-ball weighs over a hundred kgs and has a hydraulic catching mechanism about half way down.

The broadcasting of radio time signals that became widespread from 1920 made Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) available to mariners at any time of day. This and other electronic systems coming into widespread use at that time, signalled the closing chapters of the impressive era of the Marine Chronometer. The ubiquitous quartz crystal had a pivotal role in this. Although its piezoelectric properties had been understood since the 1880s, the first application in a timepiece didn’t occur until 1927. It was in that year that the original quartz clock was invented by W.A. Marrison and J.W. Horton. In his book Crystal Clear, Richard Thompson relates the story of the quartz crystal in World War II, from its early days as a curiosity for amateur radio enthusiasts, to its use by the US Armed Forces. It follows an intrepid group of scientists and engineers from the Office of the Chief Signal Officer of the US Army as they raced to create an effective quartz crystal unit. They had to find a reliable supply of radio-quality quartz, devise methods to reach, mine and transport the quartz, find a way to manufacture quartz crystal oscillators rapidly and then solve the puzzling "aging problem" that plagued the early units.

It was this wartime research which generated the need for large quantities of crystals to support the communication and radar needs of the war. Inevitably these methods were refined, the size of the crystals became smaller and subsequently the possibility of their use in watches emerged. The development of quartz oscillators became the second largest scientific undertaking in World War II after the Manhattan Project.

The “first” quartz watches have two claimants who phrase their claims with very carefully chosen words. The Swiss were the “first” to unveil a quartz watch, in 1967. The Japanese Seiko 35SQ Astron was the “first” analog quartz watch to be sold, in 1969. Miniaturisation, portability, reliability, cheapness and mass production of quartz timepieces have all combined to spell the demise of the Marine Chronometer and most mechanical watch production. A slim modern wristwatch such as the Longines Conquest VHP (with double-quartz) can deliver accuracy of a couple of seconds in a year with five years between battery changes. But for navigation even this is overtaken by the simplicity of any number of GPS systems nowadays developed for ships and aircraft.

Today, Marine Chronometers and their global supporting time-ball systems are simply remarkable relics of two turbulent centuries of naval history and they have a cherished place in the minds of horologists as very beautiful symbols of a truly momentous time.

So when the time-ball falls on the Sydney Observatory and the gun goes off on Fort Denison we don’t frighten too many Russians and our thoughts just turn to lunch. But it is a symbol of great consequence and we might well contemplate that if the Portuguese, Dutch or French found the longitude ahead of the English then they would have known how to return here and we might well be speaking one of these languages instead of English!

Ultra-fine mechanical watches, “Swiss Made” of course, are now rising steeply in price after the chaos of the cheap quartz revolution of the seventies. But now mechanical watches are for the pleasure of collectors as, for timekeeping, they are eclipsed by any mundane quartz watch, just as the Marine Chronometer was technologically eclipsed fifty years ago. The Marine Chronometer is the ultimate symbol; the zenith of two centuries of the most finely developed, most sophisticated of the mechanical arts and is now rendered redundant. And so too are the stately time-ball towers.

"The end of all our explorations will be to come back to where we began and discover the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

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