Watching the Ball Drop — the Nautical Origins of a New Year’s Tradition

They retired the time ball in Washington in 1936, although they brought one out of retirement for NYE 1999. Does the one in Greenwich still drop?

It did (every day, I think) when we were there in 2008 or so…

There was one overlooking Lyttelton Harbour in the South Island, New Zealand. It dropped at 13:00 every day until an earthquake destroyed the 130 year old stone building in 2011.

“In 1877, Western Union installed a time ball on its Manhattan headquarters, at Broadway and Dey Street. Its firing signal came from the Naval Observatory in Washington, via a dedicated telegraph line, which directed the ball to drop at noon New York time, or about 11:48 a.m. in D.C.”

This statement makes no sense to me, do I not understand time lol?

Standard Time was not established by the railroads until 1883, so prior to that there were all kinds of local times differing by all kinds of odd intervals.



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Before the Time Zones were introduced, every City used the local solar noon, or the local mean solar noon as standard.

The longitude of Washinton is 3° West of New York, therefore the noon-sun is 12 time-minutes later in Washington.

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The earth being on an elliptical orbit around the sun, Kepler’s Second Law states that the angular velocity of a planet seen from the sun (or of the sun seen from a planet) varies with the changing distance sun<>planet.

The greatest distance earth<>sun (the Aphelion) is around July 4, the shortest one (the Perihelion) is around January 4. During the first half year, the days become a bit longer, and then a bit shorter; the true solar noontime being shifted in consequence.

The ‘Equation of Time’ returns the time difference for a given day between the true solar noon and the mean solar noon. Throughout the whole year, the true noon shifts about 31 minutes around the mean noon.

Without reliable clocks, our ancestors had to use the sundial’s noon… and nobody cared, the slow shift is imperceptible. With reliable clocks, they could have measured the shift, but I doubt they did care about that in the cities.


Makes perfect sense now! Thanks

Sun up, time to go to work.
Sun down, time to go to sleep.
Hungry, time to eat.
Bladder full, time to pee.

Back in the old days no one cared what time it was in Greenwich unless you were a seaman or lived in Greenwich.


…and what are you paid for, in the northern winter ?

January is a bad time to be out in our summer sun. NZ has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world.

Yes, we in the Northern Hemisphere are blessed.

In our winter, with the sun very low over the horizon, and the days very short, we earn a 6.7% more powerfull sun than in our summer with long days and a high sun.

This may be the reason, they built only a few islands in the southern hemisphere.

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The only thing I know about the deep northern winters when the Sun stays south below the horizon is from books & coworkers who have been there. But from what I know of southern winters when the fuel to break through the ice costs too much to justify the work I answer, “Nothing”. Hardly anyone works, we just standwatch & watch. When the Sun comes back people start moving around again. And when the Sun does the goofy circle across the sky, never truly hiding in the north we work all day long.

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Or, you know, wanted to figure out longitude… There’s the old days, and the old days.

Read my comment again, people back in the day didn’t worry about longitude to much unless they were at sea. Everyone on land just asked their neighbor where they were at.

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point Sand Pebble.

‘Longitude’ is the title of a book that tells the story of John Harrison, the man who invented the maritime chronometer against tremendous resistance from his peers. The newest edition has a foreword written by Neil Armstrong.

His invention was considered portable at the time.


That’s his H1 clock, all 34 kg of it. It didn’t work well at sea. But by H4 he had it down to five inches across and three pounds or so, thus:


They are very impressive up close and in person at the Greenwich Observatory.