The British Family You Could Pay To Learn What Time It Was

The British Family You Could Pay To Learn What Time It Was

Today, most of your devices connect to the internet and set their clocks automatically. A few decades ago, if you wanted to set your clock, you'd turn on the TV news and check the time in the corner of the screen. A few centuries ago? You were pretty much out of luck. You could go to a clock in the town square, of course, but there was always the chance that even it showed the wrong time, and you'd have no way of knowing.

For millennia, time wasn't standardized at all. Everyone agreed that when the sun was directly overhead, that was noon, but that still meant two neighboring towns might have unsynchronized clocks, and there was no saying which was right. The first attempt to standardize time came from London's Royal Observatory, which created Greenwich Mean Time in 1675. You probably know "Greenwich Mean Time" as just the name of a time zone, but it would be a couple centuries more till we formalized time zones—we only realized we needed to do that when we started making railway schedules.

So, if you lived in London in the 19th century, you knew there was an "official" time called Greenwich Mean Time, but you didn't have any easy way of checking it. That seemed like a business opportunity to John Henry Belville, who worked at the Royal Observatory. Every morning, he set his silver pocket watch to the observatory's time. Then he went into town, and hundreds of clients paid him to look at the watch and set their own watches accordingly. 

John kept this going for 20 years, starting in 1836. Then his wife Maria took up the mantle for another 35 years, and finally came his daughter Ruth, who did the job for 50 more. For doing the job the longest, and most recently, Ruth was the most famous of the bunch and became widely known as The Greenwich Time Lady.

You'd think the rise of the telephone would render Ruth's business obsolete. That was the view espoused by one John Wynne anyway, director of London's Standard Time Company. By 1908, STC would wire your home up and send you the time via telegraph if you wanted, and Wynne considered Ruth (one woman carrying a watch) to be his competition, so he spoke out against her. Hers was a silly old way to do things, he said. Plus, she was probably "giving the time to" random men in more ways than one, if you get his meaning. 

His lecture, spread widely by the press, did nothing to hurt her business. Instead, it attracted a whole lot of newly curious customers. 

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For more on how time varied through time, check out: 

5 Simple Things You Won't Believe Are Recent Inventions

Daylight Saving Time Costs Far More Than It Gives

Human Alarm Clocks

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image: Hulton Archive, Alvesgaspar/Wiki Commons

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