[Paleopsych] NYT: A Brief History of Time Balls

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Op-Ed Contributor: A Brief History of Time Balls
NYT December 30, 2004

[Happy Gregorian calendar new year, everyone! As opposed to fiscal new 
year, pay new year, Julian new year, Islamic new year. This is a general 
interest article for all my lists. Though I am only half-way through my 
fourth book since abandoning reality on my sixtieth birthday, there are 
too many topical articles, like this one, for me to keep holding them 
until I finish the book, which is Revelation: Four Views and is not a good 
book, since neither it nor any other treatment of the last book of the 
Bible ever notices the blatant contradiction in the pre-tribulationist 
pre-millenarian views that maintain that signs, such as the return of the 
Jews to the Holy Land, are proof of the coming of the end, when such 
events take place AFTER the Rapture. What I am learning is just how far 
those with a particular view will stuff and twist a sacred text into it 
and yet still disagree among themselves. I am eager to learn whether this 
stuffing and twisting takes place on any such scale outside the Occident.

[I will be sending five to ten articles a day until Lent, which begins 
early this Gregorian year, namely February 9, and which I commemorate by 
suspending my forwardings for forty days and forty nights. You'll be 
interested to know that I fulfilled my desire ever since 1965 when I got a 
copy of Wolfgang Schmieder's monumental Bach Werke Verzeichnis and desired 
to get recordings of all of Bach's music. Two editions came out, on 
Telefunken (old instruments, Haroncourt and Leonhart chief conductors) and 
Hännsler (new instruments, which I prefer, Rilling, chief conductor). The 
latter set came in a huge box of 171 individually-wrapped compact discs 
for $1800. I got an e-message from Berkshire Record Outlet informing me of 
new additions to their catalog, including Hännsler recordings. Suspecting 
that these may include Bach recordings, I, along with several hundred 
other people, logged onto the site. After half an hour of retrying, I was 
able to order the set, for $200! They were quickly sold out. The set I got 
was repackaged into four-in-one albums, which fitted into two boxes 11 
inches (28 cm.) long. No booklets, but rather two CD-ROMs which had them 
as PDFs. Naturally, I am glad not to have to find room for the original 

[I'll send messages to everyone on my personal lists and, where I think it 
of interests, to lists I subscribe to, at least for a few days. Let me 
know your preferences. You will not be flooded with messages, as sometimes 
in the past. I will not have read most of them in detail, since I want to 
continue to abandon reality by reading fiction.]

[Next up is a very long file about my favorite Jewish intellectual, Susan 
Sontag. I read all of these obituaries, appreciations, reviews, and her 
own writings, as well as the essay that launched her career, "Notes on 
'Camp,'" a brilliant essay, though camp is not my sensibility. Then the 
best article about the Bush election and redemption. Something on Basque 
separatism, of which I approve, while at the same time wanting 
international institutions to be strenghtened for facilitation purposes 
and which do not have to be governmental. And a fifth item on the progress 
of women's wages.]

WHEN the time ball drops above Times Square in New York
just before midnight on New Year's Eve, Americans will,
together, do something that has otherwise become an almost
entirely independent and private activity: they will tell
the time.

New York City's annual ball drop is probably the greatest
single moment of public timekeeping in the world. Yet the
Times Square ball is not the world's most important time
ball - nor was it the first. It wasn't even the first time
ball in New York. Oh, and it isn't even dropped right.

A little history first. Public time-telling began in
church. In 1335, the bells of the church of San Gottardo
(then Beata Vergine) began tolling the hours in Milan,
ringing once at 1 a.m. and culminating in 24 chimes at
midnight. It was the first time church bells had been used
to announce time regularly. The idea spread rapidly through
Europe, and for the first time in history, large groups of
people knew the time. The Milan clock could be off by as
much as 1,000 seconds a day, but that wasn't really a
problem, because if nobody knew exactly what time it was,
how could anyone really be late?

Measurement of time improved as the centuries passed, but
even into the early 18th century most people had no need
for precise time. (The minute hand shows up on watches, for
example, around 1700). The bells tolled hourly and that was

Accuracy improved vastly during the industrial revolution
and was honed at sea: ship captains needed extremely
precise clocks to coordinate their celestial readings with
the time those readings would occur at a known point -
usually Greenwich, England (the city that later lent its
name to Greenwich Mean Time, the world's standard time).
John Harrison, the famous clockmaker, developed a
chronometer accurate and portable enough to do the job in
1761, and ultimately changed the world.

But once clocks were capable of precision time-telling, the
question was, what to set them against? In the early 19th
century, enter the time ball. Robert Wauchope, a Royal Navy
captain, had an idea: a large signal in a harbor would, at
a specific moment, indicate the exact time - sailors could
view it through a telescope and set their chronometers

In 1829 the Admiralty gave it a shot, setting up the
world's first time ball in the harbor at Portsmouth,
England. It worked so well that in 1833 they set one up at
the Royal Observatory in Flamsteed House, on a Greenwich
hilltop. The ball, which was visible to ships at anchor,
would be dropped every day at 1 p.m. At 12:55 p.m., the
red, wood-and-leather ball was raised halfway up a 15-foot
mast atop the building; at 12:58 it went to the top; and on
the hour the ball began to drop, the start of its downward
motion signaling exactly 1 p.m.

The ball idea caught on. The United States Naval
Observatory began dropping a noon time ball in Foggy Bottom
in 1845 and kept it up until 1885, when the ball drop moved
to the State, War and Navy Building (now the Eisenhower
Executive Office Building) next to the White House, where
it kept dropping until 1936. Starting in 1877, the Navy
telegraphed a daily signal to the Western Union Building in
New York, atop which an automatic time ball then dropped.
(Twelve minutes early, to account for the difference in
longitude; we didn't get time zones until the telegraph and
railroads made them necessary, in the 1880s.)

And as for New York, in December of 1904, this newspaper
celebrated the move to its new Times Square building with a
New Year's Eve party, which thereafter grew year by year.
When, in 1907, a ban on fireworks prompted The Times to
find a new celebration finale, a time ball was brought in,
and the tradition began.

The Times Square ball isn't quite a true time ball. The eye
can easily pick up motion, so precise time balls mark time
by starting to move, not by stopping. The Times Square ball
marks time with the end of its motion - hard to perceive
and inexact, but presumably more fun for counting backward.

As timekeepers became increasingly cheap, accurate,
automatic and interconnected, these public time signals -
not just time balls but noontime guns as well - began to
disappear. Today the Greenwich time ball still drops daily,
but for tourists, not navigators; time balls drop in a few
other world harbors, like Christchurch, New Zealand, and
Edinburgh, but most time balls are reserved for special
occasions, which makes it even more comforting when, once a
year, a time ball drops in New York, and we all watch.

Who cares that they do it wrong? At least they do it. It's
the end of a year. It's a way to mark a moment. It's a
moment Americans across the country can spend together. In
these fractious times, it's at least one thing we can all
agree on.

Scott Huler is the author of "Defining the Wind: The
Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned
Science into Poetry."



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