For the past couple of years I’ve been working with the Powerhouse Museum on the Time and Memory project, the book of which was launched at the end of 2018. Soon the project will be finishing up and ahead of this I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes story from one of my visits to the Observatory.
161 years isn’t a very long time in the history of the land on which the Observatory stands, or compared to the history of the stars which the Observatory was built to examine, but until the introduction of timekeeping by atomic clock in the mid-20th-century, the Observatory was central to the city. It was Sydney’s most accurate timekeeping mechanism, keeping the city to time via precision clocks, that were calibrated through the observed movements of the stars.
The Observatory building stands on the highest point in the harbour, on a rocky ridge between the coves of Warrane/Sydney Cove and Tumbalong/Darling Harbour. Now it is on something of an island, the land around it winnowed away by roads, the city grown into high-rise, but when it was first built, it would have been immediately visible to anyone around the harbour. This, indeed, was its purpose, as the Observatory transmitted the time to the city through a simple visual mechanism: the time ball on its roof.
The time-ball is a metal sphere mounted on a pole atop the Observatory’s central tower. It is now painted yellow, although it was initially painted black, which made it easier to see against the sky. Almost every day since the Observatory opened in 1858, at 1pm the ball has dropped from the top to the bottom of the mast. Now this is continued as a tradition, but its original purpose was to communicate the hour to ships in the harbour. This was so that they could make sure their clocks were running to time, for this was essential to accurate navigation.
It was not just important for shipping: the Observatory held the time standard for all the clocks in the city. Before the construction of the Harbour Bridge the Observatory was the city’s most prominent structure, and in the early afternoon, many eyes went to it to watch for the movement of the ball. Errors in the time ball’s precision were noted in the daily newspapers:
It was a late-autumn evening when I climbed up through the rooms of the tower to the roof of the Observatory, following the two of the museum’s curators up the stairs and ladders that lead to the time ball. On the library level I stopped to look over the collection of astronomy books on the shelves. Their spines were mostly plainly bound, although some of the older ones were decorated with gold stars and comets, such as Hutchinson’s Splendour of the Heavens from 1923.
These rooms once held the Observatory’s archives, the papers, notebooks, glass plate negatives and photographs that recorded observations of the sky and the weather (astronomer Henry Chamberlain Russell’s beautiful cloud photographs, for example).
The room below the time ball contains its mechanism, a central metal column with a complicated collection of cogs and levers attached to it. Usually, this is as far as people go. It is here, at 1pm, that the gears are engaged, and the button is pressed to release the ball, and there is generally little reason to go up any further. But we keep climbing, up a ladder and then through the hatch onto the roof. It’s a shift in perspective to be standing up beside the ball, knowing that this is usually a place watched from below, or afar.
Up close I see that the ball is as tall as we are, see the bolts that hold the copper panels together and where the paint has faded and peeled (though since I visited it has been refreshed with a new coat of yellow paint). There’s a hatch on the side of it, and when I point it out, the curator tells me the unlikely-but-compelling rumour neighbourhood children would be given a ride inside the ball on their 8th birthday. Looking down over the streets of Millers Point and The Rocks below, I imagine the story taking hold, kids bragging they’d been for a ride in it, others waiting for the day when they’d have their turn.
The whole spread of the harbour is visible from here. In the west, the sun has almost slipped below the horizon, lighting up the low clouds in the east. As the light quickly fades, the white and red lights of the cars travelling across the bridge seem to increase in brightness.
As always when I see the harbour from this perspective, I can’t help but thinking of time differently. The time ball represents the colonial perception of time, as something to be measured and controlled, but the harbour carries the ancestral time of this land’s first peoples, and the geologic time of the land’s formation. The skies have shifted over the harbour throughout all these times – the clouds, the changing elements, the positions of the stars above – and been observed in different ways. I am one of countless observers who have watched the sunset from this hill, as I stand here beside the metallic sun of the time ball, thinking about the day moving into night, watching the scene below me change.
Big thanks to the curators and editors at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences who have guided me in my research.
In 1950, the Smith’s Weekly newspaper published a series of profiles of city workers titled ‘Men in Odd Jobs’. The first article appeared in July, profiling Mr J.A. Sinclair, who spent his days testing lawn bowls for accuracy. Next readers met a skeleton articulator at the Australian Museum. Then a man who drills holes in buttons: Mr Ern Sheather who confides that “drilling holes in buttons is soothing to the nerves”. In September, under the headline He Frightens Spiders, was the story of an instrument maker who places spider webs in the theodolites used by surveyors for measuring angles.
Reading these articles now is to imagine a city where such obscure pastimes had cause to exist: a man could spend his working days creating bows for ladies shoes, or changing the dates on the stamps used for franking mail. Job satisfaction in these roles was generally high. Mr Desmond Russell found a job that suited him in turning mail bags inside out and, in the final article of the series, in the final edition of Smiths in October 1950, Mr Leslie Stanley, cable joiner, praised the “interesting and absorbing” work he did laying cables underneath the city streets. The job could also be entertaining, as he was able to overhear conversations from the street above through the manholes. The article quotes Mr Stanley:
One day two men were standing outside the Commonwealth Bank in Pitt Street, when one of them dropped his keys down an open grate. He was in a terrible state, and began to wonder how he would carry on his work.
His friend said it would be possible to get police to remove the grate. Just as they began to panic, my mate poked the keys back through the grate with two fingers.
The men stopped talking and gaped at the fingers with the keys dangling. They couldn’t see us below, but we could see them in the daylight.
One man said: ‘Look, a human hand and alive.’ The other snatched the keys with out saying a word and went for his life.
I can imagine this was a story Mr Stanley told often, relishing the description of the fingers poking up through the manhole, working up to the delivery of the “Look, it’s a human hand and alive!” punchline.
There are fourteen “odd jobs” stories in all. Of these, four relate to postal and telephone services. In addition to the Inside-Out-Bag Turner, the man who maintains the machine that produces the dial-tone, the franking-stamp changer, and the man who opens the door of the vault in the Bank of NSW, is the one woman featured in the series, Miss Mary Sprague.
Miss Sprague had the unusual job of reading the time live at the Sydney GPO, which housed the city’s central telephone switchboard. Before the installation of a mechanical ‘speaking clock’ in 1954, the job was done by a group of women who took turns in sitting in front of a clock, reciting the time into a microphone. Miss Mary Sprague explained how the intensity of the task made it difficult to read for more than 20 minutes at a time.
I’d never thought that such a job as time-reading would have been done live, but in the days before digital timekeeping it could be difficult to maintain accurate time on mechanical clocks and watches. When people wanted to check if their watch was correct, they called the service, dialling BO74. Up to 20,000 people would call daily and it was particularly busy around 5pm, as people hoped their watches were running slowly, and the time to leave work had already come.
The article on Mary Sprague was the first of the “odd jobs” series I read. I found it while researching an essay I’ve written for Time and Memory, a new book published by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. A few months after I read the article about Mary Sprague in Smiths Weekly, I was doing a reading at the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba. I mentioned the essay I was writing to Robyn, the cafe owner.
“Wouldn’t you believe it”, I said, “women at the GPO used to read the time live!”
“You’ll have to speak to our friend Joyce,” Robyn said, “she used to do that job.”
Speak to Joyce I did indeed, and you can read my interview with her at Reading the Time with Joyce Thomson, on the museum’s blog. When I spoke to Joyce, who is now in her 80s, she described how it had felt to move to the city, from Katoomba, as a young woman in the late 1940s. The scale of life opened up for her and there were possibilities all around. By reading the time at the GPO she joined the ranks of those in the city doing an unusual job. Now, like most of the jobs that Smiths Weekly reported on in 1950, this job has slipped from public knowledge, long-since having been technologically superseded. But just enough of a trace of it exists, for it to be remembered.