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Book review: "The Greenwich Time Lady"


With its brusque opening lines ("What time is it? It’s a simple question and this book looks at some of the ways we have tried to answer it over the last couple of hundred years"), Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady plunges the reader headlong into a densely packed gem of a history—one that author David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the British Royal Observatory, is uniquely qualified to tell.

The book’s eponymous heroine was the last in a short line of Belvilles who made their living in a unique manner: they literally brought time itself from the Greenwich Royal Observatory to a London subscriber base that included shopkeepers, shipping firms and clockmakers. Through a tenuous and complex arrangement with the observatory’s Astronomer General, the Belvilles were granted weekly entry to the observatory, where a clerk would adjust their steadfast watch (nicknamed “Arnold” after its maker, John Arnold) to the correct time and provide a certificate denoting the same.
cover art

The Belvilles then carried this corrected watch around London to the diverse group of businessmen willing to pay money to find out exactly what time it was. This arrangement lasted from the 1830s, nearly half a century before Greenwich Mean Time officially existed, until the 1940s, when technologies such as radio and telephone service finally became perfected enough to render the service obsolete.

Through the story of the Belvilles—father John, his wife Maria and their daughter Ruth—Rooney introduces the reader to a singular epoch in England’s history, when technological progress both responded to and created a new demand for the accurate and consistent dissemination of the correct time according to Greenwich. Along the way, we learn who gave voice to the “speaking clock” that gives out time signals by telephone; what a marine chronometer is; where the Unabomber got some of his ideas about bombs; when the BBC came up with its characteristic “six pips” time signal; and why daylight-saving time exists, along with quite a bit more.

At a terse 192 pages, The Greenwich Time Lady carries no dead weight and reads as an exemplar of the principles set forth in Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language...Omit needless words. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Yet Rooney’s prose is not skimpy or spare; rather, it breathes life into the characters and events that form this unusual story.

Rooney’s plain language does great service to his subject. His concise description of the marine chronometer fills about one page, but leaves the reader with no doubt about how such devices worked and why they are significant to the matter at hand. The book reads as a lively lecture delivered by a practiced instructor, one who foresees his audience’s questions before they arise and smoothly steers his narrative accordingly. Rooney also drops in the occasional humorous aside, as when he describes a newspaper advertisement to illustrate how the concept of uniformly synchronized time had captured the public consciousness: “Readers of the Manchester Guardian on 8 May 1908...were faced with an extraordinary advertisement for Beecham’s Pills. ‘You will have noticed that a clock left to itself is rarely right; it requires to be regulated carefully.’....Go on then, thinks the reader, tell me why Beecham’s Pills and unregulated clocks go together.”

There are a very few occasions when Rooney’s story seems to come in a bit fast and furious. In chapter one, the reader is introduced to 24 characters within ten pages, few of whom stick around to do anything of significance as the book progresses. For the most part, however, Rooney keeps the promise made in his introduction, delivering “a book written for a wide readership and, in particular, for those with no detailed knowledge of timekeeping history”.

Writing about the end of the “remarkable decade” that was the 1920s, which saw Ruth Belville’s career as the Greenwich Time Lady drawing to a close, Rooney reminds us that “New technology doesn’t just sweep aside old systems. They co-exist for far longer than one might expect. Even in the 1930s, for instance, market workers in east London received a daily time signal from knockers-up blowing dried peas through pea-shooters at their bedroom windows. Whatever worked remained appropriate.”

Throughout this brief but intriguing tale, Rooney emphasizes again and again the complex relationships between old and new, between man and machine, reminding the reader that such cultural interstices neither happen in a predictable fashion, nor do they follow linear paths. As Rooney puts it, “Stuff endures”, especially when there’s sufficient demand for it. The “stuff” of The Greenwich Time Lady will no doubt endure in its own right as a charming and thoughtful history of a subject that fascinates eternally: time.

Oh! Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.
Jane Austen (1775 - 1817), "Mansfield Park"


filbert said…
I read your review as you originally posted it, so I could see the clips. Now I have to admit I've set the book aside in the flurry of Christmas gift books, but you've just moved it back up in the stack again! You are an excellent writer and critic.

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