How Did Towns in the Olden Days Keep Their Clocks in Sync?

The title should be self-explanatory. Clocks have been around for a long time. However, many places had large clocks in churches and elsewhere.

How did people manage to keep clocks in sync for their immediate area let alone elsewhere or even within their own houses? If you live miles away from the nearest big clock, it seems like it would be hard to get any group of people together within a small time window whether it is for church or for a political speech.

How did they manage this?

In olden olden tymes, they didn’t. Noon was whenever the sun was directly over wherever you were. Time zones were invented when rail travel made them necessary; at that point, telegraphs could be used to keep railroad station clocks in sync.

There was usually one town clock, and anyone else who could afford a clock in the area set theirs to match the town clock. Everyone else listened to the town clock’s bells to know what time it is.
If you live miles away from the central clock, you knew to head into town at dawn to be in time for the church service. It’s not as if they had any fast way to travel which would require such coordination.

Railway Time

I’ve heard that there was no standard time until the development of long didtance railways, which made accurate timetables necessary.

Edit - Ah, should have read the thread more carefully.

Just to add. The town’s “clock tower” was generally the largest building in town. At “noon” each day (noon would be determined by whoever was in charge of that kind of thing) the clock tower would ring out. Everybody in town could hear it and know it was officially noon. Those living in rural areas would only know if there was other “towers” (eg. church or school bells) that would listen for the ring, then sound theirs to communicate the noon-sign onwards.

A hangover from this old tradition we experience once a year on New Years. The “ball” dropping is symbolic of the old town bell signaling out, officially, that it is n hour.

In the little rural town where I live, the fire whistle is blown at noon. I wonder if anyone else does that?

I’m actually a couple miles away and can hear it fairly well.

There are other towns that ring church bells too.

Good ways to “synch” time over a distance.

In the (not-so) little suburb where I grew up, instead of a whistle, we had the famous “fire burp” which was a heinously loud HONK that the fire station would let out to summon the volunteer fire corps. You could hear the burp for miles. They burped it every day at 5:00PM.

It has nothing to do with bells.

Time ball

Actually, that derives from a different practice, the time ball which was used so that ships off the coast could set their chronometers.

I’ll note also that Hong Kong has its Noonday gun, which I’d imagine is heard for quite a distance.

Vancouver, BC, has fired a 9 o’clock gun since 1894, apparently also as a time signal for ships in the harbor. Why it was decided to fire it in pitch darkness is not recorded.

Cape Town has a noonday gun as well, firing from the thusly-named Signal Hill. It’s a pair of blackpowder cannon from the 1700s (one fires, one is backup in case of a misfire), but the fire signal is sent from the atomic clock at the Astronomical Observatory near my house - how cool is that mix of old and new tech? I can hear it from my house on a clear day, and I live around the other side of the mountain from it (apparently the “fire” signal is pre-timed to compensate for the nanoseconds delay between here and the gun). The same gun battery is used for gun salutes. According to Wiki: “These are the oldest guns in daily use in the world”

The harbour, the Observatory and Signal Hill also have time balls, but I’ve only seen the harbour one raised/dropped, on Navy Day.

It’s worth noting that in the absence of intervening structures or terrain, loud sounds can be heard for miles and miles. I live about five miles south of the train tracks in town (probably quite a bit more) but I can hear fairly plainly when trains blow their whistles or do other reasonably loud things. Those whistles are only moderately loud even across the street from the tracks so you don’t really need a loud sound, just one that will carry and a clear shot. It’s easy to imagine a good, resonant bell on top of a clock tower taller than anything else in the region would be heard across an entire region.

Chances are if you lived far enough from the church to not hear the bells, you really had no use for formal time anyway. Needing to be “on time” to anything would really be a city phenomenon. The sun works quite well for farmers.

Also, it is true that sound travels far in the absence of car noise and tall buildings. In Cameroon I could hear drums and mosques up to a couple of miles away. Where I lived many people did not own personal clocks, though they could keep some track of time based on the mosque call-to-prayers. Meeting times, etc. were very flexible- there would be a one hour or so period while we waited for everyone to show up. Since people are a bit less busy in agrarian cultures (unless it’s harvest or planting time, during which you wouldn’t be having meetings) spending an hour or two hanging around waiting for people isn’t that big of a deal.

There is a rather boring book about the establishment of standardized time called Time Lord. The whole concept of time was quite different just a few generations ago.

It was only when stage coaches here were required to keep to a timetable that the problem of noon being at different times across the country became apparent. The guard was issued with a special timepiece to make sure the coach was keeping to the schedule.

If you’re setting your clock by noon, then which value of “noon” do you use? When the sun is due south, or when it’s reached the highest point in the sky it will that day? The two aren’t identical most of the time.

Once upon a time, back when knights prickethed their steeds and swyfen was a national sport, folks did not have watches. Towns rarely had clocks. Although way back the Babylonians had pretty much set out minutes and hours, good old Piers Plowman was left pretty much on his own to figure out when he should be where. Sundials, graduated candles and hourglasses existed, but they were not too practical because they all required a fair bit of attention. Let’s face it, when you’re out digging a ditch, you’re not going to mess with these things. Time was centrally controlled in the community by whomever had the economic wherewithal to put effort into keeping time.

The only hitch with central control was that it was difficult to communicate the time throughout the community. Although monks had cells, they did not have cell phones. So if you wanted folks to round up and come on in, you rang the bell in you community’s church tower to broadcast the time. Of course this brings up the old chestnut of who keeps the time to the time keeper. Enter the alarm clock.

In 1335 in Milan’s Visconti’s Palace Chapel, a mechanical clock which rang each hour (no, it did not track minutes) was installed to remind the sacristan to ring the chapel bell to call the monks to vespers. This whizz-dong technology caught on so quickly that before you could say Holy Horologium, everyone who was anyone in Europe was throwing up clocks in their bell towers.

France’s Charles V put up a clock in his Palais Royal (now the Palais de Justice) in 1360, and Rouen’s clock went up in 1379. Across the Channel, the Salisbury Cathedral clock went up in 1396 (and was rebuilt in 1929), and the Wells Cathedral clock went up in 1392 (and now is in London’s Science Museum). Time was still a bit of a hazy concept (hey, they were fighting the Hundred Years’ War – their concept of time was significantly different from ours), but it was catching on, and the most powerful estates, Church and State, included it in the architecture of their cathedrals and palaces of power.

Over the centuries, local churches and municipalities took up clock towers as symbols of their solidity and power. In 1650 a clock was installed in a Boston church tower, and in 1716 a clock was installed in New York’s city hall. Look about any county seat in the USA today and you’re likely to find either a church, school, or government building with a prominently mounted clock.

Come the industrial revolution, time became even more important, and public business interests grew to prominence. In England the tie between business and politics solidified as the traditional landed ruling class was gradually replaced in Parliament by industrial magnates. By the 19th century, business and popular government were erecting their own power architectures. In 1844 Dent put up the Royal Exchange clock, and in 1854 his step-son put up Big Ben in the rebuilt Parliament. You knew when you had arrived in the power elite when you could afford to put up a massive building with a large public clock.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, banks have dominated the urban skyline, but more recently have had their place in the sun taken by the telecommunications industry. Thus Toronto’s beautiful turn-of-the-century churches, many with clocks, and it’s old City Hall were dwarfed by towers such as the Royal Trust Tower, the Toronto Dominion Bank Tower, the Scotia Bank Plaza, the Royal Bank Plaza, and the Bank of Montreal’s First Canadian Place, but now new structures such as BCE Place and the world’s tallest CN Tower begin to dominate. It is an architecture of economic might, and when it was still on a human scale, clocks were an important part of the towers, but now that the towers are so very tall, the clocks have become lost. We still build cathedrals, only they no longer have anything to do with religion or even with government.

And the local bank branches with their faulty digital signs proclaiming the time to a world in which we all have more watches and electronic clocks than we can keep track of? Just a vestige of a period when the banks’ public clock towers represented a cornerstone of social and economic stability.

When the sun is highest in the sky I believe - that’s how it is defined in navigation anyway.

Yes, they are. Those two definitions are the same.

Perhaps what you meant to say is, do you use apparent solar time or mean solar time? With mean solar time, every day is 24 hours long, and high noon can occur up to 16 minutes before or after clock noon. With apparent solar time, day length varies, but high noon always equals clock noon.

Sundials show apparent solar time. Mechanical clocks, in the pre-standard-time era, showed mean solar time. It’s difficult to construct a mechanical clock that mimics the now-fast and now-slow apparent solar time.

Noon-time cannon signals didn’t use either one. They either used Greenwich Mean Time, or some known deviation from it. Their purpose was to allow ships to set their chronometers so that they would know GMT–then by calculating apparent solar time they could figure out their longitude.

For anyone who finds themselves in downtown Chicago, there is a plaque commemorating the adoption of “railway” time. It is on Jackson, I believe on the SW corner of the Fed Bank bldg. Haven’t read it in some years, but I recall it having quite a lengthy explanation of the issue and the solution.

I agree with the folks who say most people had little need for precise time measurements. I recall reading a book one time that observed that when reliable clocks were developed, folks claimed to have finally mastered time - when in fact, they could be considered to have become slaves to it!