Your browser is unsupported and may have security vulnerabilities! Upgrade to a newer browser to experience this site in all it's glory.
Skip to main content

25 April 2021

Don Knibb, Maritime Media Volunteer tells us more about John Harrison - a carpenter and self-taught clockmaker from Barrow on Humber and Hull's Guildhall Time Ball.

For hundreds of years all over the world sailors had known how to establish their latitude but only in the eighteenth century did serious attempts begin in Britain to discover a reliable means of finding longitude.

The 1714 Longitude Act offered a substantial prize to be awarded by the Board of Longitude to anyone who could solve the problem.

John Harrison – a carpenter and self-taught clockmaker - and his brother James who for many years in the first half of the eighteenth century lived in Barrow on Humber understood that finding longitude anywhere in the world depended on knowing the time at a fixed point – quickly established as being at Greenwich - with great accuracy, and comparing it with local time.

They then designed and built a series of chronometers which could keep astonishingly accurate time for weeks on end even when being tossed around in a rough sea. However it wasn't until 1833 that Greenwich Observatory had Britain's first time ball – a highly visible ball which dropped down a mast at a precise time enabling mariners who could see it to set their chronometers to Greenwich time with great accuracy. The spread of time balls to other towns and cities then received a boost in 1852 when the Observatory was connected to the Electric Telegraph Company thus enabling a signal from Greenwich which precisely denoted the fixed time to be transmitted elsewhere instantaneously.

John Harrison's statue in Barrow on Humber

But not all time balls were installed on masts atop large public buildings. Many much smaller examples appeared in shops such as jewellers and clockmakers, probably as a means of attracting customers and advertising the shops' wares. Hull had at least two in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In December 1865, Bethel Jacobs, a jeweller, gold and silversmith in Whitefriargate, advertised 'chronometers rated and tested by the time ball which is in direct communication with Greenwich daily.' The Hull Observatory in Lowgate (which was not an observatory but a shop) advertised similarly a few years later. A number of time guns which worked on the same principle but announced the time audibly also appeared in different parts of the country. They could reach a bigger audience but were less popular with mariners and others who might require absolute precision since an allowance had to be made for the time sound took to travel.

By early 1915, construction work on Hull's new Guildhall was nearing completion, the design having to be altered at a late stage to take account of the Hull Property Committee's decision to incorporate a time ball. The Committee had asked the Guildhall architect – Edwin Cooper – to look into installing one, and he reported back that the cost of an electric time ball was £75 plus a further £25 or so for installation which could be carried out by Alexander Shaw of Story St who had been responsible for all electrical work on the building. The signal from the Greenwich Observatory was to be sent to the Post Office in Lowgate from where it would be relayed to the Guildhall, the Post Office charging an annual fee of £5 for this service. So if the Guildhall time ball was not the first in Hull it was going to be by far the most prominent.

There is no record of the date the Guildhall Time Ball was first used, but by 1921 in the harsh economic climate following the First World War its cost was being queried. The Post Office put up their annual fee by 50% to £7 10s 0d and the ball itself apparently needed re-gilding. Its motor was finally removed in 1922.

The current restoration is scheduled for completion in autumn 2021, giving Hull's historic time ball a new lease of life just about 100 years after it last dropped.

And Harrison? Well, he eventually won the prize offered by the Board of Longitude, although it took him a very long time to get them to pay up. He did eventually get most of his money but only after George lll offered him his personal support!

**We endeavour to make sure all the research and facts we present by staff and volunteers is accurate and checked with rigor. However, we are only human, so please let us know if you spot any errors.**