The Woman Who Kept Time

Illustration for article titled The Woman Who Kept Time

Back in the days before satellites beaming the time at our phones, finding the correct time was a challenge. Once the Industrial Revolution turned each hour into a billable hour, it was necessary to standardize time across a whole city. Enter Ruth Belville, a real-life Time, ah, Lady, who kept London on schedule.


There have been devices for measuring time for tens of thousands of years. From calendars to sand timers to simple bones on which a tally of days are kept, people found ways of marking time. Marking time didn't necessarily mean marking it strictly. Many of the early societies had laissez-faire attitudes toward time and appointments. They would meet each other in a few days, or when the harvest was done, or at dawn, or perhaps sometime after their third sibling dropped dead of smallpox. Although clocks became more accurate, nobody much cared if they varied a few minutes from each other.

Ah, but things changed. The Industrial Revolution modified workers lives from being ruled by daylight hours and seasonal change to being run by a punch clock. The trains had to run efficiently, and businesses opened at a precise hour, and scientific experiments or astronomical predictions depended on the time. Winding a grandfather clock and trusting it to be about right didn't work anymore. In London, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and in nearby Greenwich, a clock had been established to set the time for the entire world. But who could fit a regular trip to Greenwich into their business schedule?

Ruth Belville, and her family, made trips to Greenwich a business schedule. Belville's family had invested in a powerful, accurate, and exquisitely made watch. Between 1846 and 1940, a member of the Belville family took the train, or sometimes went by foot, to Greenwich once a week, and precisely synced the watch up with Greenwich Mean Time. Then it was back to London.

Businesses, having an interest in getting the right time for everything, would pay Belville a yearly subscription to come by their center each week with her officially certified 'chronometer,' and let them sync their clocks to Greenwich time. She wandered around the city center, from company to company, showing off her watch. Sometimes people on the street would feel the need to tune their personal pocket watches and pay her for a look at her chronometer (which, by the way, was named 'Arnold'). Ruth was the last Belville to have this profession. She still made the trip to Greenwich and around London well into her eighties.

The Belvilles had competition. There was a more professional service, the Standard Time Company, that tried to put them out of business several times over the generations. A greater threat to her had to have been piracy. How many Victorian Londoners, do you imagine, followed behind the lady and ducked into the businesses she frequented in order to adjust their watch to match the newly-accurate clock on the wall? How many people, just after seeing her chronometer, shared with their friends? And is earning the title 'Time Pirate,' enough to make it worth it to rip off a dear old lady?

Image: The Mary Sue

Via Neatorama and The Mary Sue.




"And is earning the title 'Time Pirate,' enough to make it worth it to rip off a dear old lady?"

Time Pirate - probably not.

Time BANDIT, on the other hand....