Friday, September 16, 2011

Manhattan and the Time-Ball

The world's first time-ball, built in 1833, sits atop the Royal Observatory in Greenwich -- photo by Jake Keup

Victorians had a problem when it came to their watches: How could you be sure your watch was accurate?

Before satellites or digital technology a slow watch could gradually become significantly off by ten minutes or more within just a few days. How could a railroad engineer make sure he was on schedule and, if he was, how could a passenger be positive he would arrive at the station on time?

The problem was acerbated by major cities running on their own time. Because of its more westerly location, noon in Savannah came 24 minutes later than it did in Washington DC.  Railroads in the United States pushed for standardized national time system as late as 1883; the companies arguing that such a system would simplify schedules and preclude train collisions.

One Georgia citizen was incensed at the idea, writing to the Savannah Morning News “The railroads can’t stop the sun, and they can’t dictate to the working world when it shall be 7 o’clock in the morning or 6 o’clock at night.”

But slight differences in time could not be tolerated by sailors. Navigation was dependent on accurate timepieces. If chronometers were inaccurate by only a few minutes, a course deviation of hundreds of miles could result.

To fix the problem the time-ball was invented.

British sea captain Robert Wauchope came up with the idea in 1818 and 15 years later passed along his perfected notion to the Admiralty, suggesting that a time-ball be erected in Greenwich.

The concept was, in fact, quite simple. A lightweight leather-covered wooden ball with a 20-foot flagstaff running through its center would be erected on a tall building. The ball would rise to the top by the use of halyards where an electro-magnet held the ball in place. When the ball-keeper received the signal announcing the precise time, he would interrupt the current and the ball would drop.

Anyone watching the ball could adjust their timepieces as the ball fell.

In October 1833 the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty gave notice that “a time-ball will henceforth be dropped, every day, from the top of a pole on the Eastern turret of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, at the moment of one o’clock PM mean solar time.”

To give mariners ample time to prepare, the ball was hoisted half-way up the pole at five minutes as a warning. Three minutes later it rose to the top signaling that the ball drop was imminent.

Time-balls began appearing across the globe. They necessarily were associated with an observatory or connected to one by telegraph in order to discern the exact time.

When the British Government opened a hospital for sick seamen on the Island of St. Helena in 1856, it included “a Time-ball office for rating and correcting ships’ chronometers, at which the ball drops twice daily for the benefit of the shipping.” The Observatory overlooking Sydney Harbour in Australia was built in 1855 specifically to house the time-ball that fell for the first time in 1858.

A time-ball sits above a two-story building in Wellington Harbor, New Zealand
But while major towns and ports of call were installing time-balls American cities were not among them. In 1859 Taliaferro Preston Shaffner in his The Telegraph Manual complained “In America, we have a National Observatory, and though it has had but a few years’ existence, its fame has spread throughout the civilized world, and added new luster to our glory; but we have no time-balls in our maritime cities, to indicate the hour and the movement of the pendulum at Washington in our National Observatory.” Frustrated, he point out that in England where several time-balls had been installed “Persons can regulate their own timepieces, without the aid of the watchmaker.”

The 1855 time-ball in Deal, Kent, England

Finally in September 1877 New Yorkers had their own time-ball.  Western Union employee George M. Phelps designed and built a ball made of semicircular sheets of copper.  The sheets, some of which were crescents, reduced wind resistance.

The ball was installed on the top of the Western Union Building at 195 Broadway.  The ten-story building was, at the time, the tallest building in the city.  New Yorkers for blocks around could see the ball and easily adjust their watches.

As with most time-balls, it was hoisted partway up the staff at five minutes before the hour and all the way at two minutes before.  A signal from the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington DC would drop the ball precisely at noon.  In the days before time zones, New York's ball would drop fully 12 minutes before the one in Washington in order to account for longitudinal differences.

By 1881 the U.S. finally had a few time-balls and the Western Union Telegraph Company of New York launched an investigation to test the accuracy of the device. According to S. P. Langley, Director of the Observatory in Washington D. C. on June 5 of that year, after a daily comparison of three separate locations and times, “The mean error of dropping such a time-ball here through the year would be less than one second.”

Time-balls were becoming indispensable, cropping up in the Cape of Good Hope, Madras, Bombay, New Zealand, Brighton and Washington DC.
Williamstown, Australia had a time-ball by 1861.
Adolph Ochs stole the time-ball idea for a marketing scheme. Ochs was the owner of The New York Times and in 1904, the year the newspaper opened its new Times Square headquarters, he put on a fireworks display at midnight on New Year’s Eve to show off his new building.  With around 200,000 people crowding into the Square, it was the beginning of a New York tradition.

But Ochs wanted something new and more iconic. For the 1907 celebration he had the firm’s chief electrician Walter F. Palmer build a lit time-ball that would drop from a flagpole at midnight from the top of One Times Square.  And with that another tradition was born.

By 1912 the Western Union Buildling had been dwarfed by skyscrapers rising around it.  The time-ball was obscured and ceased operation.  A new time-ball was badly needed.

When the RMS Titanic sank in April of that year, citizens of New York erected a monument in the form of a lighthouse in memory of the victims.  Included in the design was, finally, a time-ball for New York Harbor.

The lighthouse and time-ball were erected in 1913 at the top of the Seamen’s Church Institute Building on South Street. The ball was gilded to catch the sun and was dropped precisely at noon upon a signal from the Western Union offices– unlike many of the time-balls, such as the one in Greenwich, which dropped at 1:00.

After a year without one, New York harbor had a time-ball.

The Titanic Memorial Lighthouse and Time-Ball -- NYPL Collection
The ball dropped every day for decades, precisely at 12:00 noon. On March 1, 1962, however, it dropped twice. No sooner had the ball reached the bottom of the pole that day than it was quickly hoisted up again.

At 12:05 it was dropped again to signal the official start of the ticker-tape parade up Broadway honoring astronaut Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr. The New York Times remarked that “None of the historians at the South Street institution could recall that the ball had ever done double duty before.”

Only six years later the Seamen’s Institute building was demolished and the lighthouse and time-ball were removed to South Street Seaport where neither functions.

The Times Square time-ball still drops, of course, every New Year’s Eve at midnight. However it is not recognized as a functioning time-ball because it does not do (and never has done) daily duty.

Manhattan's remaining functioning time-ball does not get official recognition due to its infrequent schedule.
Only four time-balls remain functioning world-wide since the historic tower of the Lyttelton Timeball Station in New Zealand was destroyed by the earthquake of June 2011.

The historic time-ball tower Christchurch, New Zealand was destroyed in 2011.


  1. Thanks for the smart post, Tom - admittedly I was a little sad when I started reading & learned the Christchurch ball had been destroyed in the earthquake earlier this year, but otherwise I really enjoyed the history you shared - especially the vintage picture of the Titanic Memorial lighthouse/time ball.

    Time balls are IMO one of the more fascinating things I've discovered through all my diggings-around in maritime history. I first learned about them last winter when working on a blog post about the Times Square time ball... I hadn't really considered their *practical* roots before then.

    Thanks again for sharing & keep up the great posts :)


  2. Thanks for the comment. I wrote this one because after my post on the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, I realized that a lot of people didn't understand what time balls were for. They're fascinating.

  3. Thanks for the post. Can you name the four time-balls that remian functioning world-wide as stated in your post. I suspect that one would be the time-ball atop Greenwich observatory in Greenwich England.

    1. I believe they are the Sydney Observatory, the Greenwich Observatory, the US Navy Observatory and the Port Lyttleton, New Zealand time ball.

  4. The time ball atop the Custom House on Wall Street predated the one at the Western Union Building by 17 years. It was activated by electric signal from an observatory in Albany.