Time Off the Wrist: Points of Reference

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Without going too deep and posing the question, “what is time?” I want to share some thoughts and tales about how we measure time or, more specifically, what we choose to measure time against. Due to the continuous nature of time, any reference point is going to be a fairly arbitrary line drawn in the sand. Depending on where on the globe you are when reading this, your time may be different to mine, but the likelihood is that it is offset against Greenwich Mean Time, plus or minus a whole number of hours. We don’t need to all be working to the same time, but sharing the same reference point is vitally important in the modern world. This wasn’t always the case.

Pictured: Louis Essen and his early atomic clock, which is one of the most common and accurate points of reference of time in our world.

The Knocker-Upper

As Britain entered the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, it started to become more and more necessary for people to conduct their lives, and livelihoods, according to a centrally managed reference time. The days of many workers keeping their own hours based on the seasons, daylight hours or their own needs were fading as more and more people were employed in specialized and large scale production mills and factories.

The owners of those workplaces took it upon themselves to wake up workers living in earshot with a blast of the factory whistle. Not everyone was working to the same schedule, however. By the time pocket watches were starting to become more common towards the end of the 18th century, many individuals found they had access to the time regularly throughout the day, and the days were becoming more uniform and synchronized.

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That’s all well and good once you are awake, but right up until the early 20th century many people sought the services of the local “knocker-upper” to rouse them in the morning in the absence of alarm clocks.

Mary Smith, a famous knocker-upper with a pea shooter.

 

Others just used a long stick.

This very innocent title was given to the men and women who, armed with the accurate local time taken at some point very early in the morning, used their pocket watch to wend the streets and knock on the bedroom windows of their customers with a long stick at an agreed time. In some cases, the client’s requested knocking time was written on a card and placed in a downstairs window, but many knocker-uppers were employed by businesses to wake their workers at agreed times. There is only one mystery that remains: who was responsible for waking the knocker-uppers?

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Railway Time

With the world becoming a smaller place as industry expanded, the “line in the sand” used as a reference needed to be drawn on a global scale. Luckily, some canny Brits drew that line and Greenwich Mean Time was born. The 24 longitudinal meridian lines referencing GMT formed the basis of what each of us knows as “the time” (with a few notable exceptions) and have done ever since.

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However, long before the advent of GMT, most civilizations measured time by the rising and setting of the sun and therein lies the problem with the neatly-packaged time zones—they are only “correct” if you happen to be on one of those lines. Many countries, provinces, and even towns were reluctant to move to a GMT-referenced time zone, and they clung on to their own time based on the rising and setting of the sun.

Exeter Cathedral Astronomical Clock.

As the transportation infrastructure grew in an industrial Britain, the need to operate a consistent and efficient railway system led to Great Western Railway imposing a “Railway Time” so that all trains would run to the same clock. The small city of Exeter is only 160 miles from London and comfortably within the same time zone whichever map you may choose to look at, but the sun rises and sets around 14 minutes later than it does at Greenwich.

The Dean of Exeter, Thomas Lowe, was one who steadfastly refused to conform to the new time and the lovely Astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral was set to Exeter time for some years. He wasn’t the only one less than keen to change, with the station clocks at both Bristol and Exeter showing two minute hands—one for Railway Time and one for local time. And neither hand is necessarily wrong.

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The One O’Clock Gun

John Harrison is rightly revered in the world of horology and remembered as the inventor of the marine chronometer, helping sailors calculate their longitude with a clock that could keep accurate time of a reference place. Working on Captain Robert Wauchope’s idea of time balls to give sailors a visible cue for calibrating their ship’s clocks, but recognizing that Scottish estuaries are often foggy places with low visibility, the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle became the firing place for the one o’clock gun in 1861—also the year of Dean Thomas Lowe’s death.

The sound of the cannon could be heard up to two miles away. The need for the daily cannon firing has long since passed, but the tradition lives on and has spawned a charming, albeit an apocryphal tale.

The story goes as follows:

Knowing the importance of firing the one o’clock gun at precisely the right time each day, the gunner would stop outside the window of famous Edinburgh clockmaker and jeweler, Hamilton & Inches, each and every morning as he made his way to the castle (such was the reputation of Hamilton & Inches). On hearing this, a reporter was intrigued to find out more about what made this particular clock the most accurate in town and made his way down to the shop. While the clockmakers were rightfully proud of their skills, when asked what they calibrated their clocks against, the answer was, “the one o’clock gun, of course.”


Click here  for previous installments of “Time Off the Wrist.”

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Brad stumbled into the watch world in 2011 and has been falling down the rabbit hole ever since. Based in London, Brad’s interests lie in anything that ticks, sweeps or hums and is slightly off the beaten track.

bradwatch
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  • R Khalifa

    Yet another great installment in this series! Thoroughly amused at the “knocker-uppers” and the one-o-clock gun story

  • jonathanp77

    Great article! Definitely enjoyed the story about the knocker-uppers and one o’clock gun. Yes the Brits drew the line in the sand by establishing GMT but I had hoped that you would have mentioned that a Canadian (Sandford Fleming) proposed the concept of worldwide standard time zones that reference the GMT. 🙂

  • Joshua Roland BA

    Awesome article!

  • Jakejd

    Love it!

    The real problem with GMT-based time is that humans had to be in charge of whether they would observe it locally, and where the boundaries should be. The “time zone” mercator lines reflect a ridiculous hodge-podge of nonsensical decisions. Drawn on a map, it’s an elegant and mathematical solution; what we got is a globe that looks like design by committee over several generations in multiple languages without a translator.

  • Russ

    Nice article, Brad. I wasn’t familiar with knocker-uppers (at least not in that context). 😉 This article would make a nice segue into American railroad time.

    BTW, that’s a gorgeous astronomical clock at Exeter. I’d love to see it some day.

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