BOOKREVIEW: Rooney: Ruth Belville, The Greenwich Time Lady, 2008

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Fortunat Mueller-Maerki

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Sep 23, 2001

Greenwich Mean Time – up close and personal

Ruth Belville, The Greenwich Time Lady, by David Rooney. Published 2008 by National Maritime Museum,Greenwich, London UK ( ) ; hardback, dustjacket, 192 pages, 14x20cm; ISBN 973-0-948065-97-2, sparsely illustrated in b&w.Index. Text in English. Available at for $16.50 or borrow from the Library & Research Center at the National Watch & Clock Museum.

Most horological enthusiasts know that the Greenwich Royal Observatory provided exact time for navigational purposes long before time in everyday life was standardized, and in 1833 - with its time ball - installed the first ‘time signaling device’ distributing accurate GMT or Greenwich mean time to ships captains laying at anchor on the Thames below. But how did the chronometer makers in the city of London, who were out of eyesight of Greenwich, get accurate time which they needed to regulate the many chronometers they built?

The charming little book under review, written by one of the current curators of the historic Greenwich Observatory, recounts the seldom told story of Maria Belville, The widow of an observatory employee, in 1856, before telegraphic time signals were feasible, established a small, semi-official business ‘carrying’ every week the exact GMT (in the form of a superb pocket chronometer by John Arnold set to exact GMT time by the observatory) to a list of clients throughout greater London. The truly amazing part is that this little business, carried on by Maria’s daughter Ruth Belville from 1892 onward, survived for 84 years, till 1940, in spite of mounting competition from telegraphic, telephonic and radio time signals.

In the course of the narrative the author also tells the story of the standardization of time in the United Kingdom, and, using this horological example, an instructive tale how a traditional product or service can sometimes survive against all odds as the optimal product for its niche market even if it seems completely outside the mainstream of technological progress and innovation.

The book in question is more an amalgam of vignettes illustrating the role of time, time distribution and time standards in British society from 1850 to 1950, than it is a book on horology in the narrow sense of the word. Nevertheless most readers with a general interest in the history of timekeeping will find it to be an entertaining and enlightening human interest story with a strong horological undercurrent..

Fortunat Mueller-Maerki. Sussex NJ November 30, 2008



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