A time ball or timeball is an obsolete time-signalling device. It consists of a large, painted wooden or metal ball that is dropped at a predetermined time, principally to enable navigators aboard ships offshore to verify the setting of their marine chronometers. Accurate timekeeping is essential to the determination of longitude at sea.
Although the use of time balls has been replaced by electronic time signals, some time balls have remained operational as historical tourist attractions.
The fall of a little ball was in antiquity a way to show to people the time. Ancient Greek clocks had this system in the main square of a city, as in the city of Gaza in the post-Alexander era, and as described by Procopius in his book on Edifices. Time ball stations set their clocks according to transit observations of the positions of the sun and stars. Originally they either had to be stationed at the observatory, or had to keep a very accurate clock at the station which was set manually to observatory time. Following the introduction of the electric telegraph around 1850, time balls could be located at a distance from their source of mean time and operated remotely.
The first time ball was erected at Portsmouth, England, in 1829 by its inventor Robert Wauchope, a captain in the Royal Navy. Others followed in the major ports of the United Kingdom (including Liverpool) and around the maritime world. One was installed in 1833 at the Greenwich Observatory in London by the Astronomer Royal, John Pond, and the time ball has dropped at 1 p.m. every day since then. Wauchope submitted his scheme to American and French ambassadors when they visited England. The United States Naval Observatory was established in Washington, D.C., and the first American time ball went into service in 1845.
Time balls were usually dropped at 1 p.m. (although in the United States they were dropped at noon). They were raised half way about 5 minutes earlier to alert the ships, then with 2–3 minutes to go they were raised the whole way. The time was recorded when the ball began descending, not when it reached the bottom. With the commencement of radio time signals (in Britain from 1924), time balls gradually became obsolete and many were demolished in the 1920s.
A contemporary version of the concept has been used since 31 December 1907 at New York City's Times Square as part of its New Year's Eve celebrations; at 11:59 p.m., a lit ball is lowered down a pole atop the One Times Square tower over the course of sixty seconds, concluding at midnight. For the arrival of 1988, the event's organizers acknowledged the addition of a leap second by extending the drop to 61 seconds (in reality, the leap second was applied worldwide five hours earlier at midnight UTC). The spectacle was inspired by an organizer having seen the time ball on the Western Union Building in operation.
Today there are over sixty time balls standing, though many of these are no longer operational. Existing time balls include the following:
In March 1864 New Zealand's first time ball was established at Wellington. This was followed by Port Chalmers in June 1867, Wanganui in October 1874, Lyttelton in December 1876 and Timaru in 1888. Attempts were made by some people in Auckland to establish time balls there from 1864 onwards, but these were not recognized by the authorities until a permanent time ball was mounted on the Ferry Building in August 1901.
The ball is one of just a few nationally and is the only maritime timepiece on a municipal building. It dates back to 1918 and is the highest in the UK.CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)[dead link]