Wednesday 31 December 2014

universal coordinated time

The tradition of dropping the ball in New York’s Times Square—and derivative celebrations, which began with the year 1908 after fireworks displays were banned in Gotham over safety concerns has much older roots that connect the count-down with navigation on the high-seas and reflect on the nature of time and time-keeping itself. The Naval Observatory in Washington, DC had installed a time-ball in 1845 for the benefit of fleets launching out from the Delmarva Peninsula for the antipodes that fell daily to mark high-noon. This temporal landmark goes back to the Royal Observatory east of London, which rests on the Greenwich meridian. While it was relatively easy for ships at sea to calculate changes in latitude (north, south) by gauging their position under the stars, reckoning degrees, minutes and seconds of longitude proved much more of a challenge.
A navigator could figure how far east or west one had traveled by knowing the difference in time at his present location relative to his point of departure, but clockworks did not yet have their sea-legs and it was not possible to keep good measure, until the development of the sturdy maritime chronometer, invented in 1737 in England, whose chief berth was at Greenwich, later declared to be the Prime Meridian in a convention chaired by US president Grover Cleveland. A bright red ball was installed on the observatory’s bell tower—visible from all around, that has fallen daily since 1833 as an aid cue for passing ships to synchronise their watches—although at 1300 since the crews were busy calibrating earlier with the noon-time angle of the sun. The newspaper magnate wanted to give the gathered crowds a similar cue, bereft of his former pyre and beacons, with a dazzling effect and commissioned the first illuminated ball to be lowered at the stroke of midnight to usher in the New Year.