Steve Hardy volunteers for the Guildhall Time Ball project and was given the opportunity to visit Cutty Sark and Greenwich as part of a study day.
This is what Steve had to say about his day.
On Tuesday 17 May, I was privileged to be one of a small group of volunteers to travel from Hull to Greenwich on a Study Group visit to The Royal Observatory.
Funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Hull Guildhall Time-Ball Project, the trip was to provide more insight into the history of not only the Time-Ball but of the development of timekeeping and measurement and its part in increasing the accuracy and accessibility of marine navigation.
Mariners had always relied on the Sun the Moon and the Stars to plot their course with the help of a compass and while latitude was relatively easy to measure, once out of sight of land it became impossible to measure how far east or west (longitude) you were without being able to accurately tell the time.
Primitive clocks had been around since the 16th century but it wasn’t to be until 17th century that more reliable timekeeping could be achieved by building clocks with a pendulum. Even so through to the early 18th century clocks were not particularly accurate. This was fine for clocks that remained stationary on land but not for any situation where they needed to move, for example at sea.
Step forward John Harrison.
John Harrison set about building the first Chronometer, a clock that could keep time at sea and thereby solve the problem of longitude.
As a group we were exceedingly fortunate to be in the company of Dr Emily Akkermans, (Curator of Time at the Greenwich Royal Observatory and a world-renowned horology expert), to give us a personally guided tour.
Her depth of knowledge is staggering and her ability convey the information in ‘layman’s terms’ was greatly appreciated. We could easily have spent double the about of time in her company and still not even scratched the surface of her knowledge and, I suspect, her enthusiasm!
Among the numerous exhibits (most of them unique) were John Harrison’s prototypes of his chronometer, given the logical (if not very imaginative) names of H1, H2 & H3.
H1 through H3 were rather large and cumbersome devices similar in size to a supermarket shopping basket and were developed over time to allow for variations in movement and temperature etc.
But then, in an extraordinary feat of miniaturisation that would rival that undergone in modern times by the computer or the mobile phone, H4 was developed as a truly hand-held timepiece and this would consign the name of John Harrison to the history books as the inventor of the marine chronometer and ultimately the solution to the problem of longitude.
So having acquired a chronometer, mariners were left with the need to be able to synchronise it to the local time and so began the search to develop a readily available method to do so.
One such method being the Time Ball, a device with a large sphere that could rise and fall up and down a vertical pole and which was placed at the highest point easily visible from the ships’ harbour or mooring.
Just before the given time, the sphere or Time-Ball would be raised up the pole then at precisely 1pm would drop giving a visual time signal and allowing a mariner to check the setting of their chronometer.
The Hull Guildhall Time Ball Project will restore this City’s historic device back into operation and is intended to be both an attraction and an education to locals and visitors alike.
The new Hull Guildhall Time Ball will be operational by the end of 2022
All at sea
Following our visit to the Observatory we were able to take a self-guided tour around Cutty Sark, the only surviving 3 mast Clipper in the world and one of the fastest of her time.
During our visit we tried to imagine the seafarers of the day with their huge cargos of tea from China, for which she was originally built, and later coal and wool from Australia, the latter being transported in record times.
Despite having an expected working life of just 30 years when built, Cutty Sark is now over 150 years old having been a working ship for over 50 years, a training ship for over 20 years and a visitor attraction for 60 years.
She is a stunning ship and must have made an impressive sight on the seas in her heyday. Cutty Sark is home to the world’s biggest collection of figureheads – the carved wooden figures that adorn ships’ prows – thanks to a bequest by an eccentric maritime history lover.