Accessories to Punctuality: The Sydney Observatory and its Time ball in their urban environment

Guest post by Observatory Resident Dr Nancy Cushing.

In October 1859, a letter of complaint was sent to the Sydney Morning Herald about the excessive ringing of church bells in the city.  To the writer, the bells were an annoyance in an urban area where “clocks, and watches, and time-balls, and time-guns, and all sorts of accessories to punctuality, are in everyone’s eyes and ears”.   The reference to the time ball, which had only begun service the previous year, is intriguing.  The time ball was primarily intended to provide the exact time to marine navigators, but was it also a useful addition to Sydney’s urban timescape in the nineteenth century as the letter suggested?  Or did it trundle up and down its mast unnoticed by those around it, and if so, why did they not pay it attention?  Seeking answers to these questions during a two month Residency has taken me deep into the records of the Sydney Observatory, nineteenth century newspapers and transcripts of oral history interviews as well as up to the top of the time ball tower and out into the streets of Millers Point.

View from Sydney Observatory time ball tower. Nancy Cushing, March 2021.
The view south from Sydney Observatory’s time ball tower in March 2021. The once black ball was repainted a bright yellow in the 1990s, making it more visible in its contemporary setting. Nancy Cushing, March 2021.

The time ball may now seem like a minor feature of the Observatory but was of central importance both to its establishment and its siting on the highest hill in the Darug country of central Sydney.  After the closure of the colony’s second observatory at Parramatta in 1847, the Secretary of State for the Colonies Earl Grey agreed that New South Wales could retain the transit instrument used there but only for use in calculating the exact time for a time ball.  The time balls had been invented in Britain in 1829, with the best known one at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and others placed on hill tops, towers and headlands in ports around the world.  Navigators observed the dropping of these time balls at a fixed hour, usually 1 pm, to enable them to rate (determine the degree of error in) the marine chronometers they used to calculate longitude.  Having a time ball in Sydney was a way of showing it was keeping up with the latest transport technology and assisting with efficient movement of people and goods around the globe.

Fort Phillip on Flagstaff Hill was commended in Parliament as the best location for this time ball because it commanded “the whole country on the south shore for miles around, from the harbour to Botany Bay”.  It was a logical extension of the functions of the signal station conducted on the site from the 1820s, which communicated with ships in the harbour and the South Head signal station using flags and semaphore.  In 1855, it was decided that a fully functioning observatory should be established, but the time ball remained central to the project.  Both an astronomer, William Scott, and a time ball apparatus were despatched from England, the former arriving in 1856.  Although he would have preferred a location away from city lights, dust and smoke for his observatory, Scott accepted the fort as the best place for a time ball.  Work began on a dignified structure with a single dome and a two storey tower where what was later described as the “ponderous muntz-metal black-hued time-ball” was installed 47 meters (155 feet) above sea level and began its daily drops at noon on 5 June 1858, shifting permanently to 1 pm in September.

In this way, the time ball began its nautical career, but did it also reach an audience on shore?  It was certainly anticipated when the Observatory was being built that the time ball would be of use to those living and working around it as a means of checking the time on often inaccurate public clocks.  This intention was stated in the Astronomer Royal’s 1863 instructions for the Observatory which said it should exhibit a public time signal for nautical and civil use.  I have doubts that this occurred.  Combing through contemporary newspapers, I have located just one reference to civil use.  It was a claim in 1881 that thousands of citizens glanced up at the time ball as they hurried through Sydney’s busy streets.  Perhaps the time ball’s use went unrecorded, but I think it is more likely that the time ball did not attract and retain a local audience, and offer four reasons why that might have been the case.

The first is how a time ball functions.  Its slow climb up the mast at 12:55 pm could be watched as could the dramatic drop (and bounce) at 1 pm, but for the rest of the day the time ball was uncommunicative.  It looked the same at 8 am as it did at 8 pm, seated in its resting position.  This was not a time teller like a clock, informative at any time of the day.  Public clocks on churches, the General Post Office (1871), Lands Department building (1876), the Town Hall (1884) and Customs House (1887) were of more use in helping people to keep their appointments than a daily confirmation of 1 pm.

Many photographs were taken from the Observatory. This one from the first decade of the twentieth century demonstrates the sweeping view from the time ball tower but also draws attention to all of the windows in houses and commercial buildings through which the time ball could be seen by interested viewers. Note the houses on Upper Fort Street opposite the Observatory site which were later demolished to make way for the approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Sydney Harbour from the Observatory, Star Photo Co., Unmounted views of New South Wales, [chiefly 1900-1910], State Library of NSW, PXE 711 37.

The second point is that although its location was visible from the water through a telescope, the time ball was not always easy to see from the land.  I spent several days during my residency walking the streets and waterside boardwalks of Millers Point and looking up towards Observatory Hill.   From the south and east, it is impossible to recreate the nineteenth century perspective because of the intervening bulk of high-rise towers and the Harbour Bridge approaches.  To the west and north, much less new development has occurred after 1900 so there is still a sense of the colonial sightlines.  The height of the hill and the steepness of the sheer walls created by extensive quarrying of sandstone prevent a person at ground level from seeing the time ball.  I found a few exceptions, at Munn Reserve, the boardwalk outside the Cutaway at Barangaroo, Argyle Place and Lower Fort Street near the Hero of Waterloo pub.  Reversing this perspective, photographs taken from the Observatory in the 1800s reveal the many windows in houses and commercial premises through which occupants could have been looking back, and watching the time ball.  However, it was not easy for people out in the streets, going about their business, to see the time ball and that would have limited reference to it.

A view of Observatory Hill in the 1850s from Balmain showing how visible the Observatory was.
When the Observatory was first built, its buildings and the time ball were highly visible from the water. This photograph is from the western or Darling Harbour side. The work of quarrying was still ongoing and houses not yet built up against the quarry walls. Shoreline of Darling Harbour, Sydney, 1850s, Graeme Andrews Working Harbour Photograph Collection, City of Sydney Archives, A-00077223.
The view of Sydney Observatory's time ball in 2021 from from Munn Reserve, Millers Point. Nancy Cushing, March 2021.
In 2021, the time ball is visible only from a few locations in the surrounding suburbs. This photo was taken from Munn Reserve, Millers Point. Nancy Cushing, March 2021.

A third factor is that while having a direct line of sight to the time ball at the precise time of its drop required preplanning, there was an easier alternative: listening for the time gun. Instituted in July 1857 with the intention of improving the precision of timekeeping in the city, the time gun service was appreciated and some were concerned that it would be discontinued when the time ball was in place.  “Observer” in 1858 captured the difference between a visual and an aural time signal: “this new scientific apparatus [the time ball] will, no doubt, be interesting and amusing to many, but …[the gun] can be heard in all parts of the city and suburbs by thousands, while the ball will only be seen by hundreds.”  The time gun was retained, and was synchronised with the time ball when it began service, being fired from the new Fort Denison (on Mat-te-wan-ye island, also known as Pinchgut).  The time gun was incorporated into the culture of the city in a way that the time ball was not, becoming the starting signal for yacht races and ceremonial departures, such as that of the Duke of Edinburgh on HMS Galatea in 1870.  Continuing this tradition, the Sydney to Hobart Race still begins at 1 pm with the firing of a cannon.

Brass entrance plate "Sydney Observatory Office & Tradesmen"
This brass plate from the Observatory was commissioned in response to unwanted callers at the door of the astronomer’s residence. It made it clear where tradesmen should approach the building. Those without a specific reason to enter would not have passed the front gate. On display at Observatory. Collection of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. https://collection.maas.museum/object/64304

Finally, my research suggests that although the time ball was located adjacent to a residential area in which most people had links to maritime trade, the locals did not feel a strong connection with what went on at the Observatory and did not look to it for useful information.  The Observatory incorporated the walls of Fort Phillip on two of its eight sides, and a sense of a walled, defensive space remained.  It was protected by a locked gate, high paling fence and an iron pike fence on a low wall, with the addition at times of a vocal bulldog. As a trustee of the Flagstaff Hill Reserve from 1875, astronomer HC Russell worked to further protect the Observatory by planting a ring of fig trees outside the fence while providing few amenities which would make people feel more comfortable in the space.  Even a urinal proposed in 1888 by the Sydney Municipal Council was only accepted “on sufferance”.  While university students, scientists and other respectable people could be admitted as visitors, the Observatory was a foreign space for the wharf and warehouse workers and homemakers of Millers Point.  Indeed, people who grew up in the area in the early twentieth century still referred to the hill as the Flagstaff or Flaggy in the 1980s, not accepting the official change in the name to Observatory Hill a century earlier.  They paid the Observatory, and its time ball, little attention.

Map of Flagstaff Hill reserve showing site of the Sydney Observatory, Sydney: Surveyor Generals Office, 1859, SLNSW M2 811.1713/1891/1.
The only improvement to the Flagstaff Hill reserve by 1881, in addition to new plantings, is a drinking water fountain outside the entry to the Observatory grounds. “Map of Flagstaff Hill reserve shewing site of the Sydney Observatory”, Sydney: Surveyor Generals Office, 1859, SLNSW M2 811.1713/1891/1.

My research suggests that the people of Sydney did not watch the time ball fall in any great numbers or with any regularity.  Amongst the reasons were an inability to see the ball drop, use of alternative means of time telling and a lack of connection with the site.  However, those with an interest in exactitude in time did benefit from the time ball even if they never watched it drop.  Once the electric telegraph was in place in the 1860s, the same pulse which triggered the drop of the ball could be provided for a wide range of uses off site: to watchmakers, the Post Office clock in 1871, the Sydney railway terminal’s electric clock in 1876 and from there to the entire railway network, and over time, to ferries, telephone exchanges and radio stations.  Returning to the words of the Herald correspondent, the time ball was an accessory to punctuality, but an indirect one.  It was the initial justification for setting up a system which eventually ensured a whole colony ran on time.



Astronomer’s First Annual Report to the Observatory Board, 2 December 1858.   Sydney: Government Printer, 1859.

Fitzgerald, Shirley and Christopher Keating, Millers Point, The Urban Village.  Sydney: Halstead Press, 1991.

Kerr, James Semple, Sydney Observatory, A Conservation plan for the site and its structures.  Sydney: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, 1991.

NSW Department of Housing, Millers Point Oral History Project, 2006, https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/cdn.sydneyoralhistories.com.au/wp-content/uploads.

NSW.  Correspondence Relative to Observatory and Time ball. Ordered to be printed by the NSW Parliament, 9 September 1852.   Sydney: Government Printer, 1852.

NSW. Colonial Astronomer. Correspondence Relative to Appointment of. Order to be printed 17 March 1857. Sydney: Government Printer, 1857.



2 responses to “Accessories to Punctuality: The Sydney Observatory and its Time ball in their urban environment

  • Dr Cushing, Thank you for spending so much time delving into the sources and revealing more of the time ball’s history. Although most Sydney residents may have ignored the ball for the reasons you mention, there are a few contemporary anecdotal and documented ‘sightings’.
    As a Guide back in the mid 1990s I was taking a telescope tour one weekend. One visitor mentioned to me that he had worked on the docks in Darling Harbour during the 1950s and his signal to return to work after lunch was the dropping of the time ball.
    Observatory staff regularly received phone calls in the 1980s and 1990s asking why the ball hadn’t dropped that day. Usually it was when a staff member was sick or the mechanism needed minor servicing or repairs. This has been less common since the 2000s.
    More recently, there are still a few people informally checking on the ball. From the Sydney Morning Herald, 2020 April 20:
    “Joe Sharp of Stanmore first noticed the ball had stopped dropping last week.
    “Finding myself on Observatory Hill today I turned instinctively at 12.59pm to watch the dropping of the time-ball, only to discover that this unbroken 162-year tradition (approaching 60,000 drops) has also fallen victim to the dreaded shut-down,” he told the Herald.”

  • Nancy – thank you for that very interesting article. It sounds as though you had an enjoyable and productive period of Residency at the Observatory.

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