We Used to Keep Time Using Giant Balls

Every New Years in the US, we watch giant glowing balls drop from towers to mark the change of year. When you actually stop and think about it, this is a rather odd ritual – but it’s rooted in past timekeeping methods.

In the mid-1800s, no one wore wristwatches, nor did they carry around smartphones to keep updated on the time of day. Nearly every person from these days and before kept time by the ringing of church bells. These loud dings would give everyone in the city a fairly accurate way of tracking the time of day, but they weren’t perfect.

Church bell’s dings could only be heard a certain distance away, after all, sound doesn’t propagate forever. For most people in cities, this didn’t cause an issue, but for sailors, this was a problem. Sailors needed to maintain nearly exact time to be able to accurately calculate their position at sea, and the church bells just couldn’t handle it.

Image Source: Wikimedia

So, in 1829, a Royal Navy captain named Robert Wauchope proposed an innovative idea: to create a visual clock that could be seen through telescope miles away.

A ball on a pole was erected on a tower in Portsmouth, England. Every day, at five minutes before 1 pm, the ball rises halfway up the pole. At two minutes to one, it rises all the way to the top. Finally, at exactly 1 pm, the ball falls and creates a large thud. The thud is used for local timekeeping, but the visual drop is used by sailors to track exact time.

This new timekeeping device worked so well that in 1833, another one was built atop Greenwich Observatory. The concept later spread to the US where the first dropping ball timekeeping machine was built in 1845 at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

Image Source: Wikimedia

As for why the balls were dropped precisely at 1 pm, that has a lot to do with who operated them. The balls were typically kept atop observatories because they were already high locations and astronomers would keep the most accurate time. At noon and other significant times, these astronomers would usually be taking measurements and recording data. Because of this, a time of 1 pm was selected in order to best accommodate this schedule.

As the years passed, timekeeping devices got better and other more effective communication methods were developed. Time balls eventually grew unneeded, but that hasn’t stopped them from still operating in harbors around the world. Most are operated as tourist attractions now, but a few still serve practical purposes.

So, these old timekeeping balls are the reason that every year at midnight on New Year’s Eve, we watch a giant glowing orb descend a pole.

Source: Amusing Planet

Trevor is a civil engineer by trade and an accomplished internet blogger with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author whose most recent book, ZOOM Go the Vehicles, is aimed at inspiring young kids to have an interest in engineering.

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