The Maritime History of Time

February 2023

The history of time and how it relates to the maritime world is one of the most significant chapters in global history. The question of time is nothing less than the question of civilisation; the question of us. Time itself has been harnessed, politicised and weaponised; clocks have been used to wield power, make money, govern and control; to exchange knowledge and even beliefs. For the maritime world, the history of time takes us from some of the most ingenious inventors and scientists the world has ever seen to the spread of empires around the globe. To find our more Dr Sam Willis spoke with David Rooney, an expert on the history of timekeeping and civilisation who has worked as the Curator of Timekeeping at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and is the author of ‘About Time: A History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks.’

  • View The Transcription

     

    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Rresearch in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everybody and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. Today I’m finding out about one of the most important aspects in all of maritime history, a theme that runs through it like ships through oceans. It is not, however, something physical like wood, iron, steel or canvas, nor is it a hard earned skill, like hauling on a halyard or reefing a  mainsail or anchoring an aircraft carrier. No, it’s something more abstract and yet something that is fundamental to how we sail, to how we have managed to populate the world. It is the question of time. More broadly, the question of time is nothing less than the question of civilization. The question of us, time itself has been harnessed, it’s been politicised, weaponized, clocks have been used to wield power, to make money, to govern and control, to exchange knowledge and even beliefs. To find out more I spoke with David Rooney, an expert on the history of timekeeping and civilization and the author of About Time, a history of civilization in 12 clocks, David has worked as a curator at the London Science Museum where he was Curator of Transport, and subsequently he was Keeper of Technologies and Engineering. I’m sure you will agree that is a truly fabulous job title. But he has also worked at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich where he had the even more brilliant job title of Curator of Time Keeping, a job that no doubt keeps your feet firmly on the ground and balanced in today’s world. It was an absolute pleasure to talk to David even if I had to cope with the grit in the oyster that I was jealous of his numerous jobs.  As ever I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him. Here is the incredibly accomplished David. David, thank you very much indeed for joining me today.

     

    David Rooney 

    It’s a pleasure Sam.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Right, clocks, let’s start. I was up in London recently and went to the House of Lords which was very nice and I admired Big Ben looming over the Houses of Parliament, all freshly done up and shining. It made me wonder what on earth is going on there? Why is there a massive clock next to our government, next to the River Thames?

     

    David Rooney 

    Big Ben is looking absolutely fantastic right now, isn’t it?

     

    David Rooney 

    When the scaffolding started coming down recently, and then when Big Ben, the bell, started to strike it’s like the heartbeat of London, the heartbeat of the nation, but it’s also the face of the Nation. I got really interested in clock towers, big looming clock towers, particularly in city centres and national centres like London, and Big Ben has become  since the middle of the 19th century a great Victorian edifice, has become  the British people itself. It stands in for Britishness, right, people care a great deal in Britain  about Big Ben, so when it was stopped for that restoration project, there’s a lot of consternation among a lot of people in Britain, among  a lot of the politicians in the Houses of Parliament, that Big Ben had been stopped because it was like the voice of the people had been silenced. It came at the same time that Brexit was going through so there was a lot of  national narrative about the the voice of British people, whether it was getting a louder voice with Brexit. And so with the clock stopped at that time it caused a lot of  interest anyway. So I’m really interested in clock towers standing in for people in power. And this isn’t just a recent phenomenon. I mean, we look at Big Ben, or wherever you are around the world,  there’s likely to be clock towers, many of them built by the British at the time of its maritime empire. But actually, if you look back, you can look back 2000 years. Place,  let’s go back to ancient Rome, the Roman Republic. All right, there weren’t mechanical clocks on towers. But the first sundial that was installed in ancient Rome was installed on a tall column right at the heart of the Roman Forum, and it was installed there by a great military leader who  had looted that sundial from the city of Catania on the island of Sicily in a great military victory, brought it back to Rome, put it up on a high column that bore his name.  And it wasn’t just there as a symbol it was a symbol of great military power, of political power. But it also became that kind of daily controlling device that we might recognise; the people of Rome hated it. The people of Rome talked about it and said may the Gods damn the man who first set up that sundial here to cut and hack my day so wretchedly into small pieces, arguing that they couldn’t even have their lunch when they were hungry. They had to wait till the sundial let them.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s my kind of argument. It makes me think of, I’m going off topic here. But the amazing mechanical clock in Berne, is it the Zytglogge, does that ring a bell?

     

    David Rooney 

    That rings a bell, and it does many other things as well.  They are incredible, those great astronomical and astrological clocks built in the Middle Ages. And then in the centuries that followed, places like Prague, places like Strasbourg cathedral, had these massive complex automaton clocks which showed the movement of the heavens, and automaton figures of Christ and the Disciples. Astrology, really significant at a time in the West, when everyone believed in God, and everyone believed that the heavenly bodies controlled what happened here on Earth, and therefore could have a predictive quality. While you can imagine as a resident of those cities, seeing these gigantic mechanical marvels, which are placing you in the universe and predicting your future. How amazing that must have been.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes,, and dividing your day up as well. It’s all the controlling, who’s in charge of the city, who’s in charge of the social life. And anyway, going back to the maritime aspect of it, I really struggled with it the first time when I was at the foot of Big Ben, how close it is to the Thames. And actually, if you think of between Parliament and then all the way down to Greenwich, where you’ve got other time keeping devices  the river is so important, the maritime world is so important. It’s not an accident that the government runs itself next to the River Thames, rather than in the heart of England, in Oxford or somewhere.

     

    David Rooney 

    That’s exactly right. And the relationship between power and water, and the relationship between time and water, the rivers and the coasts of this coastal nation, they’re intertwined as I’m sure we’ll talk about,  it’s absolutely no accident that it’s right on the river. That clock speaks to the river remembering, of course, that that river was absolutely teeming with life in the 19th century. That river was not just the heart of London, it was the heart of the British Empire, by then the biggest Empire in the world, and into and out from that river flowed the goods of a great huge maritime empire.  The connection between the centre of London and the rest of the world via that river, and then the sea, was  profound. And that a clock, a great clock, and what time meant in a maritime community and maritime nation, was really significant.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I have a theory about this, I believe that bridges are the curse of maritime history, or at least people trying to get maritime history across to the masses, because if there weren’t any bridges in London, or there was just one small one, then they would be full of ships, and then it would all make sense. But now there are none. So you have to actually stop and explain as you just did so well, the Thames and other rivers as well. I was in Brisbane recently and that river used to be full of trade. And then they they built, ironically, the James Cook bridge across the middle of it, which stopped any ships going up. But so it’s kind of isolated, it’s a strange place. Now then London’s a bit like that. It’s a maritime nation and a dead river.

     

    David Rooney 

    And you can definitely plot that history of, effectively, a nation turning its back on  its coast, on its river, and maritime trade, by the geography of the bridges in London. Plenty of them at the west of London, built from quite early on, very few bridges in the east, and the ones that are there and much later having been been built because all of those ships arrived from the east. And so it was harder to build bridges when there was still river trade. It was fine up to the west where the ships didn’t really want to go. But if you look in southeast London where I am, very few bridges and the ones that are there like Tower Bridge, opening a bascule bridge to allow the ships further up into the pool of London.

     

    David Rooney 

    I think we should write a book about the history of London’s bridges. It’s a very good idea. Anyway, let’s get back to clocks, we’re supposed to be talking about time. When did you first become interested in clocks? How did that all start?

     

    David Rooney 

    It’s absolutely in the blood.  When I was eight years old my parents decided to to have a complete career change. They’d been teachers and my father decided to become a clockmaker, a restorer of clocks. He retrained, went away for a year to horological college on the south coast of England and he came back a qualified clockmaker and set up a business in the family home in northeast England. And for the next ten years I was a small part of that business, going with them to pick up clocks and  help set them up. And it seeped into my consciousness, not just the mechanics of how clocks worked; I would listen to my father as he was talking about the technical problems that he was solving. But what they also did, both of them, was to research the history of every clock that they did. They worked on some amazing clocks, the finest that you could imagine, in the great country houses of the north of England and Scotland. But they also worked on the absolute most modest, the cheapest  1930s clocks, which today you can get on eBay for a fiver, you know, they’re worth nothing. But to the people who owned them, they meant everything because they  had an emotional connection.  My parents would research the history of every single one of them to be able to tell their client a little more about the clock they owned. And that stuck with me, the idea that every clock has a story to tell, they do not have to be big stories. But all those small stories add up to something quite significant. So by the time I ended up as a historian of technology, working in museums, working with horological collections among others, it was that idea about what are the stories that are bound up inside of these clocks, watches, whatever, and what are they. What do they mean when you start to add them up.  I started working on a book about  a history of clocks, but it ended up a history of civilization through clocks, because all those stories started adding up into civilization level ideas, that we’ve always cared about, really big themes, life and death, war and peace, trade, money and power. And we can understand all of those ideas better by looking at the clocks that people have made for thousands  of years.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes it’s fascinating, the way that the history of of time is actually the history of the world isn’t it.  And the maritime aspect of it is just one aspect of the history of time, the history of clocks, we should make that very clear. And you know, you and I could probably chat very happily about all sorts of different things,probaby starting again in Berne. But let’s stick to the maritime world. Why is the study of time at sea important?

     

    David Rooney 

    The big story, the headline story is longitude. It’s about navigation at sea. And the headline story is when the maritime Imperial nations started building their empires, so we’re talking about Portugal, Spain, Netherlands, France, and then Britain coming a little bit late to the party. They were travelling by ship in greater numbers, farther faster, and knowing where you are when you’re out of sight of land, of course, is crucial in that endeavour. And navigation thereforewas pretty much the biggest challenge for any empire that wanted to build and grow.  If those empires started to be built in the 15th and 16th centuries, at the same time a crucial problem grew up which seemed insoluble, the solution to the problem was well known, but nobody could make the technology to solve it. The problem was longitude, which is East West navigation, latitude is the North South position, fairly easy to find from the position of the sun or certain stars, using fairly simple angle measuring devices, cross- staffs, backstaffs, whatever. And also the navigation technologies and practices were really sophisticated right from the start of the 15th and 16th centuries, ideas about dead reckoning, about kind of plotting your way through your voyage. You can work out your speed from a logline and log glasses, you can work out your direction, using the magnetism of the earth, the flora and fauna, the saltiness of the sea, the direction and strength of the wind, the depth of the sea near coastlines, all of that could be built up into a picture of where you are, if you’re really knowledgeable and deft and the navigators of all the nations, not just the maritime empires, but all the seafaring nations through history have been incredibly deft at navigation. But if you can kind of scale that up, as the maritime empires wanted to do, then solving longitude east or west position was critical. The solution to it was known in the 16th century, there were two solutions. It was to do with carrying a clock onboard your ship, the other was to do with using the skies above you as a giant celestial clock, both of which telling you the time that affects place on earth, let’s say the port that you’ve sailed from.  And if you compare the time where you are now on the ocean, which you can find again from the sun or the stars with simple angle measuring devices, if you can compare that time with the time at a fixed point on earth, the difference between the two times is exactly equivalent to the longitude distance between the two places. It’s as simple as that. So either you carry a clock on board your ship, which keeps, say Greenwich time, or you use the moon and the stars above you to tell you Greenwich time, problem solved. The problem was nobody could build a clock that could keep time accurately with the movement of the ship and the temperature changes and the salty air. And in  the months long or years long voyages, the lubrication would dry up, which was one problem. And for the lunar distance method, this celestial method, nobody had mapped the stars accurately enough. And nobody had built an angle measuring device accurate enough for that to work. So it wasn’t until the 18th century, after a lot of money had been pumped into this project to solve those two challenges, the technology and the lunar and solar and stellar mapping had happened, that by the 1760s two solutions were on the table, the chronometer method and the lunar distance, and from then on the maritime nations started to expand hugely.

     

    Sam Willis 

    You’ve been a curator of timekeeping at Greenwich, if I’m not mistaken. You tell me what it’s like being up close to Harrison’s chronometer, tthe thing that solved the problem.

     

    David Rooney 

    John Harrison this great name in the longitude problem was the clockmaker who spent his adult life from the 1730s until 1759, making a series of sea clocks, the last of four which was actually a modified watch which became known as  H 4, Harrison’s fourth timekeeper, which was the forerunner of every modern marine chronometer, and he’d solved the longitude problem, and he got loads of money for it. Well, those four sea clocks are on show at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich where I used to work. And the first three, which are big clocks, are kept running, they need to be wound up every day. So there’s a rota for winding up those three clocks, which are three of the most significant clocks that have ever been built in human history when you think about what they enabled.  I had the honour of being on that roster three days a week,  Monday, Tuesday and  Wednesday., First thing I would do at work is go and wind the Harrison clocks. Can you imagine getting the keys to those cabinets and being able for years to go in and hear them tick and and watch their kind of  ballet?  It was just extraordinary. You know, every time I opened those cases I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that I was taken elsewhere, I was transported to places where marine chronometers enabled ships to travel.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s worth saying here that something like the remains of Babbage’s Difference Engine which is in a museum in Cambridge,

     

    David Rooney 

    Well,, there’s also the Science Museum, where I also used to work, I also used to have the keys to that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    My point is that they sit there inanimately, usually behind glass, so you don’t have to interact with them every day. And actually, for years and years and years, they will go deliberately without anyone touching them, unless they’re cleaning them or something, not making them work. But here we still have this responsibility to keep this bit of history going.

     

    David Rooney 

    I mean, clocks are not quite unique, but they’re pretty unique like that. They were designed to run 24/7, 365 , unlike a motor car, it’s only ever designed to run through a  journey and then stop.  A clock; Can you think of any other machines in history which were designed to run continuously for year after year after year? So for those Harrison clocks, I mean, the fourth one, which is a watch, it’s still in working order, although it’s not wound up because it would wear out much more than the bigger clocks. But when you’re looking at those clocks work, and you’ve seen them working as they did in the 18th century, before everything that’s happened in the 19th  20th, and 21st centuries, and that’s what gets me. I’m looking at these clocks,which were made before all of this was made possible.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Extraordinary, isn’t it? How did Charles II fit into this quest for longitude and Greenwich? Well, we’re talking about Greenwich.

     

    David Rooney 

    Well, long before John Harrison started making clocks to solve the problem, people were trying to solve the astronomical method, the lunar distance method, which is about measuring the angle between the moon and certain stars at night, measuring really accurately, comparing against tables of figures to tell you the time at that instant, at that location, so really the challenge in the 17th century before John Harrison started, was an astronomical one. What Charles II decided to do was to found the Royal Observatory in Greenwich itself. So in 1675, the Royal Observatory was  founded in Greenwich, specifically to map the stars to solve the longitude problem, to enable his nascent empire to continue to grow. He was largely bankrolling a gold and slave trading empire in Africa. And astronomical observatories had been founded around the world for centuries before but most recently in Paris, just a few years earlier, by Louis XIV. And a great rivalry and competition between the European nations, well if Paris has got one, then Britain needs to have one. And we all can go and visit at the top of the hill in Greenwich, it’s a result of that, a modest observatory compared with the Paris observatory, modest in a southeast corner of London. But again, you think about the power that that enables to be wielded, it’s a great survival.

     

    Sam Willis 

    It’s extraordinary stuff, isn’t it? Again, while we’re talking about Greenwich, let’s talk about the coastal time signals because there’s a a cracker on Greenwich, isn’t there, tell us about that one?

     

    David Rooney 

    Well, if you visit Greenwich, you can’t fail to notice on the top of one of the turrets of the 17th century building  a 19th century edition, which is the time ball, it’s a huge, now painted red, now aluminium ball, on a mast and at five minutes to one every afternoon to this day, the ball rises halfway up the mast, saying get ready, something’s about to happen. At two minutes to one, it rises all the way to the top of the mast and at the instant of one o’clock, to a split second as measured by the astronomers at Greenwich with their grid telescopes and the stars above, the ball drops. And if you were in a ship in the Thames down below you could see this ball through a telescope from the deck of the ship, or if you were in the docks, like the East India dock, which is still there; you can still go and take a pair of binoculars to the East India dock and see the time ball at Greenwich. One o’clock in the afternoon you’ve got a very accurate time signal to set. The chronometer is on board your ship, which enable you to navigate safely for the rest of your voyage. So the chronometers  were one half of a problem, the shipboard timekeeper, while you need to know what time to set on those chronometers, so the idea of river and coastal time signals which gave the accurate time to those ships started to be very significant. Now that time ball was installed in 1833 at Greenwich. By the turn of the 20th century there was a survey done of how many coastal time signals there were around the world for all the maritime empires, and the result was 200 time balls. Some of them were time discs, time guns, or possibly flags. The only continent on earth not encircled by these big expensive, accurate coastal time signals was Antarctica, but each one of those signals, this wasn’t a trivial construction, you needed to secure lands, you needed to build something physically complex. You needed to find the time accurately and somehow transmit the time to that signal.  You needed the labour, the specialist scientific skill in all of these locations, in some of the most difficult places physically on earth. And yet, it was important that the nations did that. Because the reward came from having invested in this massive temporal technology, this network, this infrastructure of time around the world, it was worth it for what it enabled, which was maritime trade. Now, most of them have gone, most of them because they they took a lot of maintenance. They’ve disappeared since, the Greenwich one is still around, and you can still find them around the world. There’s one in Cape Town, there are time balls still around the coasts. In many cases we’ve forgotten what they were doing in the 19th and 20th century.  They were  superseded by radio, by wireless time signals in the first half of the 20th century, they’re the foot soldiers of Empire, and they give us a geography of the former empires if we care to plot them on a map.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, which other countries were building these?

     

    David Rooney 

    Well it was all the maritime nations. So at the turn of the 20th century, whether it was the old nations of Portugal, Spain, France, or the newer nations that maybe had one or two possessions overseas.  America, built many coastal time signals around its own coast. Also in China and Asia, around the world, and there’s kind of a lag as well, because it took a long time to build one of these things, you’re looking at a kind of snapshot of the Empire, maybe 10 years or 20 years earlier. But yes, many of them are still there if you know where to look.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How does the Rugby radio station fit into all of this?

     

    David Rooney 

    Well, if anybody’s got a radio controls clock on the kitchen wall In the UK, it gets a radio signal to set it right. And that radio signal comes from Cumbria, a place called Anthorn. But it’s only been coming from Cumbria since 2007. Before then it came from Rugby in Warwickshire and the Warwickshire countryside. And if you used to travel on the West Coast railway passing Rugby, most of these have gone now. But there was a time before 2007 you’d see this forest of  vast masts, wireless masts holding up antennas, broadcasting wireless messages around the world. Rugby radio station was built in 1926, specifically to communicate with Britain’s naval ships around the world directly without wires, without them having to put into ports to pick up messages or time signals. Very, very long wave radio was its forte. So those radio signals kind of hug the curvature of the earth, enabling those signals to get all the way around the world. And in the case of the British Empire it  needed to get round to the other side of the world, part of the Imperial wireless chain, a chain of these stations around the world. And they started in 1927 to broadcast a time signal, which is still going strong today from Cumbria. But what really interests me about Rugby radio station, I mean technically it’s fascinating, but it was what it was doing for the British people in the 1920s. It was a propaganda exercise as much as it was a technical solution to a set of problems. It was run by the Post Office, which ran pretty much all State communications at the time. And the Post Office was really really  good at propaganda. So this was a very visible radio station, not just if you went past it, but you couldn’t miss it. If you went to the cinema and you saw the Pathe newsreel footage before the feature, you would probably see Rugby radio station being talked about. I found one of these films from 1932, where Pathe  took a film crew to Rugby radio station, and there’s a scene where there’s these Morse code buzzers chattering away, spooling out a message on printers paper tape, and here’s the voiceover. Whilst we are here, this transmitter is sending out news to Liners in all the seven seas. No place is inaccessible to GBR which was the call sign for Rugby radio. For those who can’t read Morse said the voiceover, this machine is signalling that the Post Office Rugby station is the most powerful in the world. What that meant was Britain is the most powerful in the world, the British Empire is the most powerful in the world. This was at a time when the Empire was starting to falter a little bit.  It had reached its height but it needed to be reborn in the minds of the British people continually, the  idea that Britain is at the heart of the world, that Rugby radio station therefore is at the heart of the world, and that everything in the world is connected back to Britain.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fascinating stuff. If Rugby is beaming the time around the world how did the people at Rugby know what the time was?

     

    David Rooney 

    So it started broadcasting in 1927, you needed a really sophisticated understanding of its coding system to decode what the time was, it was Morse code. You needed a high power receiver, you needed a decoding chart. This was for the professionals, for the navigating officers on ships or for the scientist. What about us? Well, how did we get the time? The BBC, the British Broadcasting Company as it was founded, the Corporation as it became, had started broadcasting time to us civilians three years earlier. We know it well in the UK and around the world on the World Service. It’s the six pips. Time signals started in 1924, which was a direct connection between again Greenwich, the  Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which originated the time and sent these six impulses of electricity on a rented telephone wire to the BBCs headquarters in central London; at the time they were absolutely on the river, just along the river from the Houses of Parliament with Big Ben. And the BBC would turn those impulses into audio tones or pips, which were then broadcast giving you the time to a fifth of a second, if you had a radio receiver. And from  that moment, I mean, accurate time, Greenwich time, Greenwich Observatory time was being beamed into the lives of all people in the UK and then on the World Service around the world. The idea that precise time is a public good, which had been growing in the Victorian period, was absolutely present in the 1920s and 30s. Maybe we’ve forgotten it now. And the pips on BBC digital radio are several seconds late. So remember your analogue radio sets if you want to get accurate time. And of course, we’ve got all kinds of other ways of getting the time accurately now, mostly from GPS satellites circling the earth. But in the 1920s and 30s, when the six pips started, when Rugby radio started, this was absolutely in our faces. And we cared deeply about the idea of precision time because it stood for progress and modernity.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing. So just to finish, is it fair to say that our understanding of clocks and the sea is not necessarily about what they do, but it’s about what they mean?

     

    David Rooney 

    I think our understanding of all clocks, all timekeepers that have ever been made. Of course, I’m interested in the technical story of how they work and how they were made, and some remarkable stories of  clockmaking through history. But all the stories come down to what they mean, about why they were made, who caused these timekeepers to be made, whether maritime timekeepers or in civil life, it’s what they mean, it’s why we should care about them. For these civilization level themes and ideas, about control, about power, about money, you know, big, big ideas, and you look at any clock, and you can see behind the face what it stood for, what it meant, and you get a history of civilization.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing stuff, David, I’ve really enjoyed that chat, thank you so much for joining us today.

     

    David Rooney 

    It’s been a pleasure, Sam. Thanks.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now if you’re interested in these themes, please keep your ears peeled and close to the ground, I think I’ve got that right, for a forthcoming episode from the fabulous historian Seb Falk, who tells us about the incredible achievements of the mediaeval navigators, a topic which also has a great deal to do with time. Please check out our YouTube channel for videos which will blow your mind about the maritime world, my current favourite being an animation of the engineers technical ship plan of HMS Warrior, a ship that changed pretty much everything about the expectations of sea power. We show what all those many intricate lines in a technical ship plan actually mean. Please remember that this podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. The Society for Nautical Research, you’re going to find at sn r.org.uk. And please, please join up. It really makes a difference to the Society and to the Societies work. It’s also a wonderful way of meeting people and to learn about the maritime past from the world’s very best maritime historians. The History And Education Centre of the Lloyd’s Register foundation you can find at h e c.lr foundation.org.uk. And they are doing something fabulous at the moment. It’s called Maritime Innovation In Miniature, filming the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment and the results are really quite extraordinary.

Category: | | | | |