Here’s a hint: it’s not the clock. There’s a handy device in this picture that’s incredibly simple (and quite famous) but wasn’t invented until 1829.
The thing in this picture which changed time-keeping around the world is not the clock, but the ball on a mast. It’s an idea so simple it’s crazy to realise we didn’t start utilising it until the 1800s.
The guy we can thank for making the ships run on time is British Royal Navy captain Robert Wauchope. Although many coastal observatories had clocks, these were not always visible to the ships in the harbour. Wauchope thought that the Royal Navy could erect a mast over the observatory clocktower with a ball, which would drop at a certain time every day, often with a clanging noise, allowing all the clocks in the harbour to sync their clocks.
The first Time Ball started dropping was at Portsmouth in 1829, at the Royal Naval College. Soon a second was built in Greenwich, at the request of John Pond, the Astronomer Royal. From there it spread to France, then America, which saw its first in 1845.
As clocks became more precise, and ways to check one’s watch became more ubiquitous, ball drops lost their popularity. Only a few remain as minor tourist attractions or nods to tradition. One of the most famous being found in the form of the New Year’s Eve ball drop in New York. That now-venerable tradition was started up in 1907, by Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times.
Image credit: Andrzej