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Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I remember a proverb that says opportunity knocks only once. That may be true, but it is also true that having heard the knock you still have to get off your arse and open the door. And, in one of the most amazing twists of history, when the scientists at the Royal observatory at Greenwich, England heard that knock they were mightily annoyed. So they pawned off the job of dealing with the disturbance to one of their servants. He turned that disturbance into a career. In fact he made three careers out of simply telling the time. The Royal Observatory was founded by Charles II in 1765 as part of his restoration and “re-scientific-ication” of government after the religious fanaticism of that great Puritan villain Oliver Cromwell. The observatory was to use the stars to perfect “the art of navigation.” But the builders, despite going over budget by all of twenty pounds, went cheap on the materials, and the observatory, which was to house the most accurate telescopes of the day, was constructed 13 degrees out of alignment. The Royal astronomers, like the NASA astronomers dealing with the orbiting Hubble telescope, have had to make mathamatical adjustments from that day to this.
But besides powerful telescopes, the scientist at the Greenwich observatory also needed accurate clocks. In order to say a particular star was at a particular point in the sky at midnight, they had to know precisely when midnight was. So they also installed two pendulum clocks, built by Thomas Tompion, each accurate to within seven seconds a day. By 1833 (sixty-four years later) the observatory had done its job so well that ships’ captains and navigators had come to rely on the precise time to follow charts provided by Greenwhich. That year the observatory began a practice they follow to this day.At exactly 12.55 p.m., (they do it then so as not to interfere with the weather observations made at noon) a large red “time ball” is raised half way to the top of a mast erected atop the observatory. At 12.58 the time ball is pulled all the way to the top. And then at 1:00 P.M., exactly, the ball quickly falls to the bottom of the mast. (If you have ever wondered why they use a ball to mark midnight on New Years Eve in Times Square, New York City, this is it.) Any ship’s captain waiting in the Thames River to set sail could now coordinate their onboard watches and clocks with the official time as they set off from the “prime meridian” or “longitude naught” - "0" degrees, "0" seconds and "0" minutes east/west, because Greenwhich is where longitude starts - and time.Two years later, in 1835, the observatory got a new boss, George Biddle Airy. He figured his primary job was to perfect the astronomical observations for those ships, and he hired more “computers”, which in the 19th century were actually men who did the dull and boring math required to confirm and correct the stellar charts used to navigate on voyages to the far flung corners of the empire. So when the London merchants appealed to Mr. Airy to share in the time service he saw them as an annoyance. He asked one of his assistants, a man not qualified to be a “computer”, Mr. John Henry Belville, to handle the problem.Airy gave Mr. Belville a pocket watch to use. It had been originally owned by Prince Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex (above), the sixth son of George III, the favorite uncle of Queen Victoria and the man who gave her away at her wedding. The watch had been made by Mr. John Arnold & Sons in 1794 and was accurate to within one tenth of a second per day. Each Monday John Henry (he rarely used his last name because of the anti-French public bias in the post Napoleonic years) would present himself and “Faithful Arnold”, the watch, to a clerk at the observatory time desk. The clerk would set the watch and then hand John a certificate asserting to the watch’s accuracy for that day. Then John Henry would make his way by carriage and rail to London, where he would literally deliver the time to some two hundred customers; shops, factories and offices. For most of the people in London, John Henry Belville was the face of official time, and he was earning four hundred pounds a year doing it when he died in 1856.After John’s death his widow, Maria, still had a daughter to support. She begged the observatory to allow her to continue the time service as a private business, and they agreed. By now (1852) Charles Shepherd had designed and installed a “Galvano-Magnetic” clock (above) at the Observatories’ gate (now called Shepherd’s Gate) where anyone could get the time at any time day or night, for free. But still the London merchants continued to pay for Maria’s direct door service. Every Monday she strode up the observatory hill, watched while Arnold was synchronized with the official time, and then went on her rounds by rail and on foot. To those who saw her trudging across the streets of London, she became known as the Greenwich Time Lady.Maria retired in 1892, and her daughter Ruth now took over the employment (above), carrying the tool of her trade, Faithful Arnold, in her handbag. By now (1884) 25 counties had agreed to set their watches by Greenwich time, and every clock at every railroad station in England was connected directly via telegraph lines with the Royal Observatory. And still, the time delivered by Ruth Belville was more accurate, if slightly less convenient.Beginning in 1924 the BBC Radio began broadcasting “pips” before each hour announcement and in 1936 the Royal Observatory set up a “talking clock” which anyone could dial at any time to get the correct time to within a hundredth of a second. And still Ruth Belville was making her rounds, still serving more than fifty paying customers over a hundred years after her family business had begun.Finally, in 1940, Ruth celebrated her 86th birthday and decided to retire.
In America we would have long since replaced her with newer technology. But the English have more respect for keeping what works, particularly if it is a living person. On her retirement, Ruth agreed to pose for a photograph, looking a bit like a visitor from another time in 1940's London. And , since she had no one to pass the task on to, when Ruth retired the Belville family work was finally completed.
Ruth received a pension from London’s clockmaker’s guild, “The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers”, where "Faithful Arnold" was also granted a rest and a place of honor. Ruth retired to a home in Croydon. On night not two years later, during one of the night bombing raids of London, Ruth turned her bedside gas lamp down low to save fuel. The flame sputtered out, produced carbon dioxide, and Ruth Belville suffocated in her sleep.In effect, she ran out of time.
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