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  • Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady
  • Carlene E. Stephens (bio)
Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady. By David Rooney. London: National Maritime Museum, 2008. Pp. 192. $25.00.

Beginning in the 1830s, the Belville family offered a time service. John Henry Belville, timing assistant and meteorologist at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, began the practice in order to transfer accurate time to subscribers in the neighborhoods of London far from the observatory itself. For that purpose, he sent out to customers once a week a silver-cased pocket chronometer, certified correct to within a tenth of a second of observatory time. This timekeeper, a precision watch made in 1794, acquired the nickname "Arnold." On Belville's death, his third wife Maria continued the service by personally carrying the chronometer to subscribers. Their daughter Ruth, from whom this book takes its title, took over for her infirm mother in 1892 and continued to visit loyal customers with "Arnold" until World War II. David Rooney's slender but substantial volume tells the Belvilles' astonishing century-long story.

In the telling, Rooney addresses key questions about time. Where does clock time originate? Whose clock time is authoritatively the right time? How much is the right time of day worth? Rooney supplies clear answers relevant to a specific place over a specific timeframe—London and its environs during the changes from a mechanical to an electric world. When John Henry Belville began the service, astronomers at Greenwich determined time by observing predicted stars with the observatory's transit telescope, maintained their own clocks precisely, and shared the time of day by dropping a time ball at 1 p.m. daily, a visual signal for the benefit of ships in the nearby docks. The Belvilles provided that time at a distance to those who needed precision—mostly tradesmen in the watch, clock, and chronometer businesses who used the exact time to set their wares. The customers remained even as the world around them changed.

Rooney revises a longstanding assumption that once the twentieth century arrived with a proliferation of electrically synchronized clocks, Ruth Belville maintained her family's time service out of quaint tradition rather than necessity. Twenty-first-century citizens—accustomed to receiving time from a radio or television broadcast, a telephone service, or a GPS receiver—may consider the practice of carrying a mechanical watch from the source of time to subscribers old-fashioned or even eccentric. In contrast, Rooney's research offers convincing evidence that the Belvilles' time service was, at first, the only such observatory-authorized service and, later, more accurate than new technologies devised to supply synchronized time electrically. The book's highest drama (and densest prose) surrounds the 1908 shenanigans of St. John Winne of the Standard Time Company, an electric clock synchronization firm. Winne's cutthroat business practices threatened [End Page 248] to sink his competitors, including the traveling watch system. But in this episode Rooney illustrates an important lesson from the history of technology: the arrival of new technologies does not automatically drive out old technologies, especially if the old are still working.

With colorful details, Rooney crafts a picture of the family activities against the backdrop of the observatory's role in the history of time in Britain—through standardization of time, the establishment of Greenwich as the globe's prime meridian, the inauguration of daylight saving time during World War I and the BBC radio's "six pips" time broadcasts, and the entertaining story of finding just the right voice—that of Ms. Ethel Cain—for the recorded Speaking Telephone time service in the 1930s.

More elusive, though, is a consistent depiction of the users of the Belville time service and the nature of the business relationships between time supplier and time user. Approximations for both the number of subscribers and the costs of the service must suffice. And it is unclear how many subscribers still took Greenwich time from Ruth Belville's "Arnold" as World War II began. That there were any at all is nevertheless a remarkable point.

This is a lively, readable book aimed at nonspecialists. It is a publication of the National Maritime Museum, a sister institution to...


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pp. 248-249
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