Tuesday, 26 January 2016

What Time is it...?

You will probably know that on this day, January 26th, the One o'Clock Gun was first brought in to use way back in 1861.  
The needs of shipping at that time depended on accurate clocks as by these the navigator could work out his position. (Don't ask me how it's complicated!) As long as he had the sun or stars and an accurate timepiece he could get his ship into the intended harbour.  Had the clock been inaccurate even by a few minutes this could lead to ships ending up miles of course a rather dangerous experience in Victorian days. 
Leith, a small place near Edinburgh became the capital port, putting it to good use, and this small town was a very busy port during Victoria's reign.  Not she bothered to visit even though her statue stands at the bottom of Leith Walk.    Ships wanted confirmation of the time before sailing so during 1861 Captain Wauchope of the Royal Navy installed a ball on top of Nelson's Column high on Carlton Hill which dropped several feet exactly at one o'clock.  To ensure accuracy the nearby Astronomical Observatory next door connected the ball to their accurate clock.
This was fine and ships in harbour at Leith, Granton or Newhaven would have benefited from this simple invention.  Hold on, this is Edinburgh, known to the world as 'Auld Reekie' because of the smoke from the many chimneys that belched out daily, even in summer in Edinburgh!  Add to this the 'Haar' which descends over the Firth of Forth and soon the watchman on deck of any ship would be unable to see the tower let alone note the ball drop.  It should be noted the dropping sphere was a great idea but as the smoke/mist/haar descend two days out of three you would have thought a Naval person wopuld have considered this. 
Later that year the answer was found when an 18 pounder cannon was placed on the 'Half Moon Battery' at Edinburgh Castle high above the New Town and daily four men manhandled the gun to ensure it was fired exactly at One.  This required a four thousand foot long cable being laid from the Observatory to the castle (by the Royal Navy) and from that time on the gun has blasted out at one each day (bar Sunday) frightening the life out of people in Princes Street below and serving as an excellent tourist attraction. 
It was rumoured that during the Great War the gun was fired at the Zeppelin that flew over dropping bombs on the Grassmarket and elsewhere, however it would not have been possible to manhandle that cannon into a suitable firing position, the castle was defenceless, unless a few rifle shots could reach but I doubt that would work.  
In 1953 the cannon was replaced by a WW2 25 pounder field gun and moved to it's present position high above Princes Street, here it is clearly seen by ships in port and of course those delightful rich tourists who ought to be heading up the slope and into the castle.  Blank ammunition for the 25 pounders ran out and now a more modern 105mm light gun is used to frighten citizens and foreigners alike.  The reason for the gun died some time back and today ships guide themselves by highly technical equipment guided by satellites high above the earth.  The tourist however need not know this and possibly imagines men on deck listening for the sound, some do indeed look for the explosion a mile or two out at sea. 
the gun is fired by an ex-gunner fires the gun with appropriate military pomp a pomp somewhat diminished as today a woman has this onerous responsibility.  A woman, firing the one o' clock gun!  Is anything sacred today...? 



8 comments:

Lee said...

Living around there would've been a lot of fun...not! Ingenious solution to a a problem. Why didn't everyone just wear a watch??????

Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

I did not know about this. Yes, there may no longer be a need for such, but it is good to honor traditions to keep ties to the past intact when there is no danger to the present.

soubriquet said...

Most interesting, Mr Adullamite. As for Lee's question, watches and other devices still need to be sychronised. As in, if you had a watch, how could you be sure it was right? Well, quite simply, you could not.
In 1761, John Harrison, a clockmaker from Yorkshire (not Scotland, of course), built the chronometer which would accurately keep time over years, no matter the temperature changes and attitude changes it would meet at sea. And in order to know exactly where you are on earth, you need to know some astronomy, and to know what time exactly it is at the Prime Meridian, which passes through Greenwich.
Other folk could set their home's watches and clocks and clepsydras by reference to the time ball, every day. But ships could not, until they returned home.
However, I think I can add to your story. Edinburgh Castle is some distance from the port of Leith. If you can see the ball drop at the observatory, all is well, and you can set your ship's chronometer. But if the day is cloudy, you must listen for the report of the gun.
Sound, though, travels slower than does light. So if you are moored against the quay in Leith's harbour, you must allow for the time the sound takes to reach you. For your convenience there is the Edinburgh Gun Sound Map, one of which my Uncle Tom had framed in his study. This has concentric circles inscribed around the gun, at varying distances. Each on annotated with the time delay at that range. Leith? Inner harbour, 11 seconds past one.

Adullamite said...

Lee, We are not as rich as Aussies.

Jerry, Ancient tradition is alive and well here.

Soub, Yes I thought about mentioning the map but couldn't be bothered...

the fly in the web said...

Your title reminded me of a visit to Fort William...
A gentleman who clearly had drink taken emerged from a hotel and enquired of me
'Whit time is it?'
'Three o'clock'.
He circled unsteadily and then enquired
'An' whit day is it?"

Adullamite said...

Fly, At the hospital at midnight I manned the small switchboard. A call came from the matrons flat where she and her holiday replacement had been drinking sherry.
"What time is it?"
"Just after 12" I said.
A grumpy voice asked "Midday or midnight?"
"er Midnight"
"Thank you."

the fly in the web said...

Super! Bring back sherry drinking matrons!

Adullamite said...

Fly, :) :)