A million people will swarm Times Square in New York when the final hours of 2019 arrive. An estimated billion more will tune in elsewhere to watch the annual globe-wide spectacle.
As the decade hits its last 60 seconds, all eyes will be focused on a crystal-encrusted downward Waterford 5-ton ball blinking with more than 30,000 LEDs. Champagne corks will pop when it reaches the bottom of a specially designed flagpole. Cheers, toasts, and kisses will come as celebrities embrace a new year’s promise.
But few will acknowledge the man, a profoundly religious British Royal Navy officer named Robert Wauchope, who deserves their praise.
The invention of the time ball is attributed to Wauchope’s innovative contraction of the Victorian era that sparked the blowout of Times Square. The man who titled his autobiography “A Brief Narrative of the Merciful Deals of God” would enjoy the connection. Navigation inspired the invention, not poisoning.
The goal of Wauchope was to make shipping easier. In the early 19th century, it was important information for sailors to have the exact time. It was only by correctly calibrating a ship’s clock that sailors were able to calculate their longitude and navigate accurately across oceans.
His ball, first demonstrated in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, was a crude broadcasting system, a way for anyone who could see the signal to relay time. Usually, at 12:55, a creaky piece of machinery would lift a vast painted orb halfway up to the top of a pole or flagstaff; at 12:58, it would go up; and at 13:00, a worker would release it to drop down the pole.
“It’s a clear signal,” said Andrew Jacob, a curator who runs the time ball at Australia’s Sydney Observatory. “The sudden movement is easy to see as it starts to drop.”
Typically, before the invention of the time ball, the master of a ship would come ashore and visit an observatory physically to check his watch against an official clock. Then, he would bring back time to the boat. The invention of Wauchope allowed sailors to calibrate their timepiece on board, called a chronometer, without leaving their ships.
“We’re so used to being here and accessible now, and that’s not always the case, “said Emily Akkermans, Curator of Time, who has the enviable nickname. Greenwich Royal Observatory, London. The museum and historic site houses the oldest operating time ball in the world, which has fallen every day since 1833, barring blustery weather, war, or mechanical breakdown.
While noon might seem a more appropriate time for a signal, it was once a rush hour for observatory astronomers to set their clocks at midday monitoring the position of the sun. It turned out that waiting an hour until 13:00, was much less hectic.
The ball of Greenwich influenced hundreds more from Jamaica to Japan around the world. Usually, the devices were located at a high point near a port, overlooking an observatory, lighthouse, or tower. And these time-signaling devices existed for just under a century.
Even the idea came off inland. “Navigation wasn’t everything,” Akkermans said. “At times balls were run by shopkeepers who sold watches to the public,” she said, referencing an 1888 article in Illustrated London News in Barbados, a 09:00 ball drop signaled the start of the class to students across the island.
But there are only a few places in operation today to see a time puck.
Eighty miles from Greenwich, another time ball frequently drops in Deal’s coastal town, near the spot where the North Sea meets the English Channel. It was the first tower connected by an electric line to Greenwich, enabling it to transmit the official time of the Observatory to mariners. However, it now relies on a British atomic clock signal. The ball drops from April to September from 9:00 a.m. around 5:00 p.m., And it also marks New Year’s on December 31 with a particular midnight set.
Jeremy Davies-Webb, Deal Museum Trust chairman, says he knows of four other working time balls apart from Greenwich, Deal, and Sydney, although they may not be running on any given day due to weather or breakdown.
The others are in Glasgow, Sydney, Gdansk, and Christchurch. He’s visited all but Melbourne’s, and is especially fond of the one in Poland, punctuating his drop with a trumpet fanfare.
“We tried to do that, but we would bitterly complain about our neighbors,” he said.
Anna Rolls, director of London’s Clockmakers ‘ Museum, has been working for several years with Greenwich’s time ball. “It’s such a strange thing,” she confessed, a complex process that provides “only something so easy to get.” She suspects, though, that’s precisely what accounts for her appeal.
Each working time ball, in truth, has its lore.
The ball of Greenwich, which is about 1.5 m in diameter and is made of aluminum, is coated indents as a result of an incomprehension. Workers were seen kicking it around the observatory courtyard in an informal football game in 1958, Apparently unaware that a temporary renovation of the ball had been taken down.
In Scotland, the one o’clock gun, which fires from Edinburgh Castle, overshadows the ball drop from Nelson Monument. The weapon was also intended to convey time to ships but is less precise than a time ball because the shot travels at 1.235 km / h at a relatively slow pace, which means that several seconds could pass before a mariner heard the volley.
In Williamstown’s Melbourne suburb, the time ball tower has bounced through different roles. Point Gellibrand’s square bluestone lighthouse opened in 1849, just in time for the gold rush of the area, but a decade later, it was turned into a time ball tower. In 1926, the keeper, who had dedicated 37 years to drop the ball, died without complaining about the interruption of service. According to the Australian preservation organization Lighthouses, the time ball was removed. Most recently, the equipment has been repaired by local charities, and the ball is dropping again every day.
The time ball tower collapsed in Lyttelton, New Zealand, after the earthquake in Christchurch in 2011. But a fund-raising drive helped rebuild the beautiful structure of stone heritage, which in November 2018 resumed fall.
And it is said that in 1939, German soldiers occupied the Gdansk tower’s upper floors, where they mounted a machine gun battery then fired World War Two’s first shots.
Other unfunctional balls are still top buildings around the globe, from Cape Town’s waterfront to Washington, DC’s U.S. Naval Observatory.