‘Excuse me, what’s the time please?’
Undoubtedly, we’ve asked and been asked this question a couple of times.
What if I told you that I intend to charge a fee the next time someone requests to know the time off my watch? You’d say I’m crazy.
Maybe so now but go back 200 years into London and you just might have ‘purchased’ time from the Belville family.
This is Ruth Belville, and she was the last descendant of the Belville family who sold time for a living.
This peculiar business was first started by Ruth’s father, John Henry Belville in 1836, in a world that predates the invention of radio, the telephone and electricity.
John Henry Belville had an astoundingly accurate watch – the Arnold – and it was a chronometer which was accurate to within 1/10th of a second.
Back in the days, watches and clocks did not have half the precision of the pieces we can buy for $200 today. The watch industry was in its relative infancy, and while it was constantly being refined, it lacked the mechanical prowess of present day watches.
John would visit a pool of ‘subscribers’ and share with them the time on his watch so they could set theirs for a fee. So, what made ‘John’s time’ so special?
John worked for the Royal Greenwich Observatory – the birthplace of the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) – and had the benefit of getting his pocket watch certified weekly. With a watch showing time that was the time, John sold his time to clockmakers, ship chartering companies and non-professionals who wanted to ensure their watches were tracking the right time.
So, who is it exactly who determines what time it is?
To put it in short, the stars determine the ‘exact time’. Astronomers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory monitored the movement of the sun relative to earth’s and the precise moment at which it passes through the Greenwich Meridian – an imaginary line across the globe used in marine navigation – will be 00:00.
This moment differs from day to day with a deviation of up to 14 minutes and since John works at the observatory, he had instant access to the real time
Every 15 degrees longitude away from the Greenwich Meridian represents exactly one hour of time difference. Hence, you can work out the time of any location on earth if you know how many degrees east or west it was from the Meridian (15 degrees x 24 hours = 360 degrees).
It is also interesting to note that the Royal Greenwich Observatory had a contraption called the time ball, which was dropped at exactly 01:00 daily so observers in view of it could set their watches and clocks. This ‘dropping’ still occurs today and has never stopped since 1833.
John Henry Belville passed away in 1856 and his unique business was handed over to his wife, Maria, and subsequently on to their daughter, Ruth Belville – for which this story is most commonly associated – who became known as the Greenwich Time Lady.
Ruth carried on the legacy set by her father and continued to provide her family service to more than 200 clients.
When the industrialization of the world started and the telegraph became more prevalent, ambitious business owners of telegraph services (sending a daily beep telegraphically to indicate a predetermined time) started to downplay the ‘backward’ method peddled by Ruth Belville.
But as they say, old habits die hard. Clients used to the personal face to face service provided by Ruth were resistant to the idea of getting time told to them from a machine and they stood by her.
Ruth Belville never failed them. Well into her 80s, she continued to make the daily 12 mile trip at 9 am to the observatory with her trusted Arnold pocket watch in tow. This she did till her death in 1943 aged 89.
It is unreal to see how far we’ve come since; now that nothing is beyond the click of a few buttons.
The Belvilles’ story is not unlike that of the mechanical watch. Their functions are (technically speaking) obsolete in the digital age but if we were but men who looked only upon utility, the world would be a gloomy one only coloured in black and white.