Time-balls and feminism

What was a time-ball and how did it contribute to the feminist movement?

I am a great believer in learning something new every day. By learning I mean having a ‘that’s interesting’ moment. A ‘that’s interesting’ moment is worthy of sharing but there is no guarantee that I will remember it, especially when the subject matter is completely foreign to me. Researching in the Archives pretty much guarantees one of these moments every day.

Yesterday’s ‘that’s interesting’  was about time-balls and ladies undergarments.

What are time–balls?

Hobart has always been dependant on its port, for transporting people,  trade and for bringing communications to us via ships from the other side of the world. Sadly many lives were lost at sea on the voyages to and from our remote island, as a search for shipwrecks Tasmania will show.

Any means to assist with the safe passage of shipping was therefore a high priority. One tool to assist in the safe passage was the time-ball. The first time-ball was used at Greenwich Observatory in 1837, making Greenwich Standard Time.  Time-balls were adopted then by various outposts around the world, with Hobart first using one in the mid-1870s.

A time-ball was a device that gave ships navigators the precise time. During the course of a voyage the motion of the ship could cause the chronometers, a marine time-piece used to calculate longitude, to lose accuracy.

How did they work?

At one-o’clock each day a large black ball over a red pennant dropped daily from the topmast-head at the Prince’s Battery. On board the ship an observer with a spy-glass could see the precise moment the ball fell and alter their chronometers accordingly. On occasions when the time-ball was inaccurate a red pennant was hoisted to the mast head for one hour.  Townspeople could also use the time-ball to set their own time pieces, which they did in Hobart for the next fifty years. The last mention of the time-ball was in Walch’s Tasmanian Almanac of 1926.

Over time, various improvements in communications allowed for even greater accuracy of coordination with Greenwich Mean Time. On the 1st September 1886 the time-ball was coordinated with an electric signal at 15h. 10min. 39 sec Greenwich Time or 1pm daily.

In 1903 the Mersey Marine Board at Devonport decided a time-ball would be a useful addition to their port, and for the local townspeople.  The Devonport time-ball needed a galvanometer which would use the time signals transmitted from the Hobart Observatory for its accuracy. Pictured is a galvanometer c. 1900 sourced from Wikipedia.

So what’s this got to do with feminism?

As reported in the North West Post (Formby, Tas : 1887 – 1916) Sat 11 Jun 1910,

“Professor Mead’s, head of the electrical department of a girl’s high school, was for a time puzzled by the occasional antics of some of the more delicate instruments used in his experiments… he found out that when certain girls approached particular instruments the needles on the various dials commenced to twist and turn as if possessed by some demon and the galvanometer would gyrate widely. A little consideration of the situation convinced the Professor of how things stood. The girls who made the experiments a failure when standing near the certain instruments were those wearing the high grade corsets with ribs of the finest steel. The girls who seemed to have no effect on the instruments at all were wearing corsets that were braced with whalebone.”

This was explained to the girls and they decided , reluctantly,  to give up their steel boned corsets in favour of their education.

Win, win there I’d say.

Stevens & Co., family drapers & importers, 125 Elizabeth St. [drawn by T. Midwood]., TAHO.
  1. I used Walch’s Tasmanian Almanacs 1870-[1971] and searched for Time Signal, to establish dates. These Almanacs are a great resource for all sorts of details about life in Tasmania at a given time. For example the 1894 Almanac can give you information on the number of breadwinners, the destruction of the codling moth, the number and location of destitute children, pictures of flags displayed at the wharf showing where ships are sailing to, lists of businesses and professional persons, governments employees and taxes, the officers of various clubs and societies as well as a multitude of other useful facts useful in building up a picture of daily life in Tasmania.

Author: Elizabeth Brown

Elizabeth Brown is a Librarian with the State Library of Tasmania and Tasmanian Archives

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