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.