Australia - Colonial: 1854-1900.
Notifying the time.

An important feature of daily life - in business, in personal affairs, in transport and communication and even in Government - is telling the time. Using astronomical techniques, it is a relatively straight forward procedure to establish a time in any part of the world in relation to Greenwich. So, for example, it is possible to establish noon, for example, in Sydney or in Melbourne. It can then be assumed that these two times are identical (allowing for the difference in longitudes).

What is much more difficult (and time consuming) is to establish the exact corresponding time in regional centers - for example in Grafton, in Nullagine, in Wallaroo or in Alice Springs.

With the advent of the telegraph and the speed with which a message can be transmitted, it became possible to send a signal from say Sydney to Bathurst at 1:00 pm and then both stations knew their times were synchronised.

The first use of an electric time signal was in the United Kingdom in 1852. The introduction was due to the Electric Telegraph Company.


Notifying the time to the communities.

There were a number of ways to notify an agreed time to a community and these depended on the distance between the notification and the community.

1. Semaphores (flags).

2. Time balls.

3. Cannons and guns.


1. Semaphores (Flags).

The early ways to notify communities close to a special place - such as the Observatory - was to use flags. People then knew that when a flag dropped it was a certain time - usually 1:00 pm. For example:

"In future Sydney mean time will be notified by the hoisting of the semaphore signal at the Telegraph Office at a few minutes before one p.m. daily, \
and it will be dropped at one p.m. precisely, Sydney mean time
Yass Courier 29 September 1860).  

When the Observatory was placed some distance from the Telegraph Office - which was usually in a central location - a telegraph message was sent from the Observatory to the Office at precisely 1:00 pm and the flag would drop.


2. Time balls.


The big ball.

The possibility for a time ball in the newly opened telegraph facilities at Fremantle.



Sydney first ball.

The Yass Courier of 30 March 1861 describes the proposal for a Time Ball at Goulburn:

"A Time Ball for Goulburn.

Thanks to Mr. H. S. Clarke of Auburn Street, Goulburn may be said to possess a Town Clock. But while grateful for such a convenience, there are few of our townsmen who will not agree with us that a "Time Ball" would be a desirable and important acquisition. The Telegraph Office in the Market Square will very soon be occupied and Mr. Mackel, we believe, has expressed his willingness to attend to a "Time Ball" if it were erected. All the machinery that would be required is a pole about forty feet high, with a sheave hole on the top, an iron frame about three feet in diameter, made to represent a ball, and covered with canvas, painted red or black, with sufficient line to hoist it at the instant time is telegraphed from the central office in Sydney. The cost of the whole would not, at the very highest calculation, exceed £10, a sum which might be easily raised by a trifling subscription among the townspeople.

In addition to this, a flag with the word "Mail" might also be provided and which could be run up us soon as the arrival of the European mail was telegraphed from Adelaide. There are few who will not admit the public utility of such an arrangement and it is to be hoped the subject will not be lost sight of.
Goulburn Chronicle.
Our contemporary's suggestion is an admirable one and is worthy of the consideration of our townsmen, as the new Telegraph, office will soon be ready for occupation.

Mr Charles Kraegen, Telegraph Master at Albury, organised for the erection of a time ball at that place in October 1862.

NSW North east - Grafton and ??

Newcastle in Newcastle Morning Herald 7 March 1878.



Like the other Colonies and as a first stage of time ball communication, Queensland transmitted at predetermined times. The 1892 Regulation described the transmissions as follows:

10. The correct time shall be obtained at all stations by a signal transmitted from the central office in Brisbane every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 1 pm for which purpose all ordinary business on the different circuits will be suspended at 12:55 pm and every officer in charge must be in attendance to receive the signal from which to set the office clock to the correct time.

11. The stations on the railway circuits will be supplied with a daily time signal (Sundays excepted) at 1 pm. Officers must be in attendance to receive these time signals and, for this purpose, all other business must be suspended at 12:55 pm.



"It appears that Melbourne, among the other great works which are being undertaken throughout the colony, is to have an electric telegraph. The journal previously quoted has the following:

"Plans for the buildings required for the intended line of telegraph from Melbourne to Hobson's Bay are now completed, and are laid open for the competition of contractors. The station for Melbourne is to be a brick and stone building, containing offices, battery, acid and store rooms, a strong room for valuable documents and quarters for an officer in charge. A tower nearly forty feet high, surmounted by a flagstaff, on which a time-ball will traverse, forms part of the building.

The establishment for Williamstown is of similar character, but on a slightly more limited scale. It is, however, very complete".
Empire 19 December 1853.

Melbourne GPO



The following is our first communication by this new medium:
" Williamstown, March 17, 1863.
The compliments of chief Harbour Master to the Editors of the Argus and Morning Herald and would feel obliged by their giving publicity to the following notice to commanders of vessels in Hobson's Bay.

Notice to Mariners:
It being necessary to suspend the dropping of the time ball at Williamstown for a short time in order to effect some necessary repairs.
Notice is hereby given, that commanders about to proceed to sea can have the errors and rates of their chronometers rectified by applying to the Observatory, Gellibrand's Point.
Due notice will be given in the daily papers of resuming the time signal.
Chief Harbour Master.

Williamstown and its time ball from 1863.



The Victorian Post and Telegraph Regulations of 6 March 1893 "to be observed by Officers and others engaged in the Transaction of Telegraphic Business" included on page 9:

"Standard Time

38. A time sinal for comparison or correction of mean time is passed over lines at 1 p.m. daily. Postmasters or operators in charge of offices must be careful to obtain the signal when transmitted. The clocks supplied to the various offices are to be kept always regulated exactly according to standard time.

At not less than three minutes to one o.clock p.m. standard time, all stations must cease working until after the 1 p.m. signal has been given.

Special article on Lighthouses in Victoria in 1854. Take each description and paste it in relevant location.


South Australia

Adelaide 1917


3. Cannons and Guns.

Gundagai used a gun/cannon each weekday to inform the surrounding population of the time so that all were uniform. Usually there was no problem BUT:

"Bursting of the Gundagai Time Gun.

The time gun which for the last four years enabled Gundagai and the district within a radius of five miles to enjoy the convenience of uniformity of time, on Monday, the 16th instant, suddenly came to grief. At the hour of firing, one o'clock, the inhabitants were startled by hearing an unusually loud report and, immediately after, John O'Donnell - the telegraph line inspector who acted as gunner - was perceived by persons in the vicinity lying on the ground near the gun.

Fearing that some accident had occurred, several parties went up and discovered that the piece had burst and O'Donnell in a state of insensibility, the blood flowing from a wound in his head. In a few minutes, however, he recovered so far as to be able to walk, with assistance, to the telegraph office.

Dr. Lane was shortly in attendance, when he discovered the injuries to be slighter than was anticipated. The flap of the ear had been divided and there was a severe contusion on the side of the head, which at first was supposed to be more severe than has proved to be the case.

O'Donnell's escape from death was almost miraculous as the force of the explosion shattered the gun into fragments which were scattered in all directions. The breach of the gun, which was of a thickness of three inches, was split into several parts, of which one portion only has been found. A piece of iron used as a brace, and weighing about eight pounds, was blown to a distance of fifty yards. Fortunately no person but O'Donnell was near at the time of the explosion, or the consequences might have been very serious.

The cause of the accident is supposed to be on account of the charge having become damp. The gun, which was exposed to the weather, had been loaded on the previous Friday, and had not been fired till the day in question. It is more than probable, from the appearance of the remnants of the gun, that the accident arose from an excessive charge which was used"



Western Australia

The differences in time between the Post and Telegraph Office and the Railway Station at Coolgardie created "serious inconvenience" for passengers in 1900 and the Municipal Council took appropriate action.

A variation of the Cannon was a simple bell sometimes sounded from the Police Station. Such an event ended at Geraldton in November 1883 throwing many into confusion.