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time

One of the highlights of a visit to Wells Cathedral is seeing the oldest surviving clock face in the world, in the north transept. Above the face, jousting knights on horseback do battle, with one unfortunate being knocked over. Looking on, a figure called Jack Blandifer chimes bells each quarter-hour. Originally the knights charged every hour, but due to tourist demand the display was modified in the 1960s to allow a shorter joust to happen every 15 minutes. The knights […]

It’s been an astronomical few days: The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society appeared on the radio to talk about all the big scientific truths that, apparently, ‘we’ll never know’, we celebrated the Summer Solstice, we saw Dr Who at Stonehenge, and – last Thursday – the Director of the Taipei Astronomical Museum came to the Science Museum. As a parting gift he presented me with a tie depicting the Sun and planets. I had come to work in suit and open collar shirt so […]

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of radio time signals. These days, we’re used to the familiar sound of the six pips on the BBC, and we can buy cheap quartz clocks and watches that get magically set right every day by distant transmitters, such as the British service from Cumbria. Whilst experimental radio time transmissions started in the late nineteenth century, it was in May 1910 that Paris’s Eiffel Tower was used to broadcast the world’s first official regular radio […]

No sooner do I write a blog about the symbolism of Waterloo’s station clock than it gets taken out of service for a refurbishment! The concourse underneath the Waterloo clock has become an iconic meeting-place, a focal point amidst the hurry of the station, as shown in Terence Cuneo’s dramatic painting: Now, for a few weeks, time stands still for the station’s passengers. Railways run on time. In the early days, time was a life-saver – literally – as trains […]

Last week I showed you the Rolex wristwatch that went seven miles down to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, in the Pacific Ocean, in 1960. Let’s stay with the nautical theme with this marine chronometer: Chronometers, as I’ve said before, were the timekeeping devices carried on board every ship from about 1810 to the 1980s to help navigate. The Royal Observatory Greenwich is the place to go for the whole chronometer story, but we too have some rather nice ones […]

Since about 1800, maritime navigation has relied on super-accurate timekeeping. Recently this has involved radio time signals beamed down from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, but for the bulk of the period, ship masters have navigated using the chronometer. These are very accurate portable timekeepers carried on the ship, providing a reference to compare against local time. The difference between the two times is equivalent to the east-west distance between the two places. That’s longitude, and it was a real devil […]