Books

Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady by David Rooney

Before radio signals and GMT, one family literally conveyed time itself from the Greenwich Royal Observatory to business people around London who would pay to know exactly where the clock's hands stood.


Ruth Belville

Publisher: IPG
Subtitle: The Greenwich Time Lady
Author: David Rooney
Price: $25.00
Length: 192
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780948065972
US publication date: 2008-10
Amazon

With its brusque opening lines ("What time is it? It's a simple question and this book looks at some of the ways we have tried to answer it over the last couple of hundred years"), Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady plunges the reader headlong into a densely packed gem of a history -- one that author David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the British Royal Observatory, is uniquely qualified to tell.

The book's eponymous heroine was the last in a short line of Belvilles who made their living in a unique manner: they literally brought time itself from the Greenwich Royal Observatory to a London subscriber base that included shopkeepers, shipping firms and clockmakers. Through a tenuous and complex arrangement with the observatory's Astronomer General, the Belvilles were granted weekly entry to the observatory, where a clerk would adjust their steadfast watch (nicknamed "Arnold" after its maker, John Arnold) to the correct time and provide a certificate denoting the same.

The Belvilles then carried this corrected watch around London to the diverse group of businessmen willing to pay money to find out exactly what time it was. This arrangement lasted from the 1830s, nearly half a century before Greenwich Mean Time officially existed, until the 1940s, when technologies such as radio and telephone service finally became perfected enough to render the service obsolete.

Through the story of the Belvilles -- father John, his wife Maria and their daughter Ruth -- Rooney introduces the reader to a singular epoch in England's history, when technological progress both responded to and created a new demand for the accurate and consistent dissemination of the correct time according to Greenwich. Along the way, we learn who gave voice to the "speaking clock" that gives out time signals by telephone; what a marine chronometer is; where the Unabomber got some of his ideas about bombs; when the BBC came up with its characteristic "six pips" time signal; and why daylight-saving time exists, along with quite a bit more.

At a terse 192 pages, The Greenwich Time Lady carries no dead weight and reads as an exemplar of the principles set forth in Strunk and White's classic Elements of Style: "Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language...Omit needless words. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." Yet Rooney's prose is not skimpy or spare; rather, it breathes life into the characters and events that form this unusual story.

Rooney's plain language does great service to his subject. His concise description of the marine chronometer fills about one page, but leaves the reader with no doubt about how such devices worked and why they are significant to the matter at hand. The book reads as a lively lecture delivered by a practiced instructor, one who foresees his audience's questions before they arise and smoothly steers his narrative accordingly. Rooney also drops in the occasional humorous aside, as when he describes a newspaper advertisement to illustrate how the concept of uniformly synchronized time had captured the public consciousness: "Readers of the Manchester Guardian on 8 May 1908...were faced with an extraordinary advertisement for Beecham's Pills. 'You will have noticed that a clock left to itself is rarely right; it requires to be regulated carefully.'....Go on then, thinks the reader, tell me why Beecham's Pills and unregulated clocks go together."

There are a very few occasions when Rooney's story seems to come in a bit fast and furious. In chapter one, the reader is introduced to 24 characters within ten pages, few of whom stick around to do anything of significance as the book progresses. For the most part, however, Rooney keeps the promise made in his introduction, delivering "a book written for a wide readership and, in particular, for those with no detailed knowledge of timekeeping history".

Writing about the end of the "remarkable decade" that was the 1920s, which saw Ruth Belville's career as the Greenwich Time Lady drawing to a close, Rooney reminds us that "New technology doesn't just sweep aside old systems. They co-exist for far longer than one might expect. Even in the 1930s, for instance, market workers in east London received a daily time signal from knockers-up blowing dried peas through pea-shooters at their bedroom windows. Whatever worked remained appropriate."

Throughout this brief but intriguing tale, Rooney emphasizes again and again the complex relationships between old and new, between man and machine, reminding the reader that such cultural interstices neither happen in a predictable fashion, nor do they follow linear paths. As Rooney puts it, "Stuff endures", especially when there's sufficient demand for it. The "stuff" of The Greenwich Time Lady will no doubt endure in its own right as a charming and thoughtful history of a subject that fascinates eternally: time.

9

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image