On Saturday, we went to Deal in Kent. Deal is a small seaside town and one of the famous Cinque Ports which possessed great power and prestige in the medieval period but have since sunk into relative obscurity. You will find more information about them on Official Website of The Confederation of the Cinque Ports.
Whatever Deal might have been in history, it is today a small, quiet and (I hope the inhabitants of Deal will forgive me) rather boring little town.
Why then did we go there? The pictures provide the clue. These days we have plenty of ways of checking the exact time. Anyone as obsessive about time-keeping as I am can have radio-controlled clocks and even a radio controlled watch. Your friendly local radio and TV stations broadcast time signals every hour and if that is not enough you can dial the speaking clock.
It was not always so, of course. In times past, keeping accurate time was rather difficult and required precise astronomical observation. Only the best observatories – Greenwich being the most important and best known – could undertake this work. Good time keeping was necessary to many spheres of life, not least among seafarers who relied on high-precision timepieces in order to be able to calculate their position at sea.
A system was thus invented which enabled ship to regulate their clocks while in port. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich mounted a time ball on the roof. Every day just before 1 pm, the ball was hauled to the top of its mast and then allowed to drop at precisely 1 pm. Ships’ chronometers could thus be set by visual observation of the time ball.
The advent of electricity enabled this system to be extended to certain other ports. Time balls were installed and their operation controlled by an electrical signal from Greenwich. It must have been a great boon to navigators to be able to set their chronometers accurately while in port.
This was the reason why we went to Deal, namely to see the time ball in action. The time ball station is now a museum and the time ball is no longer a vital service but an historical curiosity. It no longer operates just once a day but every hour, on the hour, during the day when the museum is open. It was nevertheless exciting for me to see the thing actually working and to imagine how many navigators had in past times eagerly watched its movement in order to set their chronometers with the accuracy needed to plot their ships’ courses with the exactitude required to take them on their voyages and bring them safely home again.
A few minutes before the hour, the ball is hoisted up the mast to the middle point (top picture). It waits there for a while and is then hauled right to the top (middle picture). Exactly on the hour, it drops to the bottom of the mast (bottom picture) and remains there until it is next called into action.
Saturday was a cold grey day, with occasional flurries of rain, not the best conditions in which to visit the seaside, I agree. My lack of appreciation of Deal may have been influenced by this. Perhaps on another visit I will discover charms that I missed on this occasion.