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Telling the Time

Subject: Blog

Description: Once it wasn't enough to tell the time. You had to maintain it

Posted by David Caldwell on 25/01/15 at 15:07

Today time runs better than clockwork. 

Our watches are battery powered marvels of circuitry that enable time to be displayed accurately and without any thought.  Our devices and phones keep time to atomic accuracy through constant calibration with internet time servers.

In the age when most watches were clockwork things were not so simple. 

You not only had to tell time you had to maintain it in such a way our ancestors had to nurture a flame.

Maintaining a clockwork watch took discipline.  You had to remember to wind it at least once a day and keeping good time required synchronising the watch with sources of official time whenever available.

But what is official time? 

In the pre industrialisation era the church were the guardians of time.  They needed to know when to hold the services of the day such as Vespers.  Sundials were commonly used and still can be seen on many a church wall or steeple.

This time was local solar time and varied greatly depending on your position on the Earth’s surface.

Knocker Uppers

Before the 1920’s an affordable alarm clock was out of the reach of most households.  An alternative was to pay someone to wake you up.  This was the job of the ‘Knocker Upper’ who must have been the most hated profession in town.  They woke the slumbering by banging doors with clubs or knocking bedroom windows with long sticks.

Greenwich Mean Time

Greenwich Mean Time is simply the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich but how could time be standardised across the country?

Railway Time

With the spread of the Railways in the 19th Century a way of standardising time was needed and the solution was Railway time as displayed on every station clock.  Initially this was calculated using a formula to convert local solar time to Greenwich Mean Time.

Telegraph Time Signal

With the coming of the electric telegraph it was possible to send a time signal from Greenwich to stations all over the nation.  Clocks on church steeples now displayed Greenwich Mean Time rather than local time.

The Pips

 The Greenwich Time Signal was conceived by Astronomer Royal Frank Dyson and John Reith from the BBC.  Introduced in 1924 they consisted of six pips that represented a count down.  These are broadcast every fifteen minutes but are typically broadcast before the hour.   This enabled listeners to calibrate their clocks and watches from the comfort of home.

The Speaking Clock

Introduced in 1936 and still operating today is the Speaking Clock telephone service.  By dialling 123 a caller is greeted by a pronounced English representation of the time.  At the third stroke the time will be…

Keywords: time, clockwork, knocker upper, Greenwich, Time Signal