Reflections on Time

Kevin F. Taylor

I was recently invited to attend a garden party to celebrate 150 years of the Bidston Observatory, hosted by Stephen and Mandy Pickles on Saturday 17 September 2016 in the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse. This gave me a deep sense of déjà vu, as it reminded me so much of my first day as a member of Bidston staff at the start of 1972.

On that day, I drove up the same well-worn drive, past the sandstone wall entrance, and into the grounds. On my right hand side was a lawn that was shortly to be occupied by the new Proudman Building. But in early 1972 that area looked almost the same as it does now, except for a small vegetable patch that was attended to by a Mr. Connell. He and his family occupied the cottages that belonged to the lighthouse and had been built by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. On that balmy Saturday evening in September, I thought it quite strange that, here I was celebrating 150 years of the Observatory, and yet the ‘new’ Proudman Building had been built and demolished (in early 2013) within little more than 40 years, a fraction of the Observatory’s lifetime.

The nostalgia continued as I parked my car behind the rear of the Observatory in almost the same spot as I had on that first day at work. I remembered thinking back; my father would quite often force me to join him on one of his marathon walks. One of his favorite treks was from Moreton to Bidston, then over the Vyner Road footbridge, past the windmill, around the Observatory boundary wall down to the village, then home. In the 1950s and early 60s, I was infatuated by science fiction and men-from-outer-space movies, and TV dramas like Quatermass and Doomwatch. For me, looking over the walls surrounding the Observatory presented all kinds of mysteries: What secrets were hidden inside the huge white domes? My youthful and vivid imagination had no bounds in ‘them days’.

On my first day in 1972, I now had the chance to look at the Observatory from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in. How exciting! As I got out of my car and approached the entrance, a gentleman in front of me held the door open and greeted me with the words “Hello Kevin, glad to see you are joining us”. We then passed through the vestibule door and continued to chat in the hallway for a good ten minutes. He then finished by saying “you will be with Dr. Skinner’s group. I will take you to his office”. He gave a quick knock on the door, popped his head around, and said “Sorry Len, Kevin is not late, my fault I kept him chatting”. I was later taken through to the rear of the building for the mid-morning tea break when the same gentleman entered. I turned to one of the staff and asked “who the nice man was”. “That is Dr. Rossiter our director” was the reply. I was then informed that he was the brother of that brilliant actor Leonard Rossiter from the Rising Damp and Reginald Perrin television shows (come to think of it, they did look alike). [Editor’s Note: see mention of Rossiter and other Bidston Directors in an article by Graham Alcock].

So, allow me to digress about a couple of things that have struck me about time, and why I have given the title of this article as ‘Reflections on Time.’ It seems to me that we have different perceptions of time depending on the situation. For example, my first day at the Observatory was over forty years ago, and yet on that recent Saturday in September, it felt like only yesterday. Another example concerns my grandmother, who was 104 years of age when she passed away. When she was born in 1889, the Observatory building had been completed (in 1866) only 23 years before. So, why were we so concerned with celebrating the Observatory as an ‘historic building’, when my memories of my grandmother do not feel ‘historic’? She was just my Nan. So, time is a funny business.

One of the main reasons for the Observatory was to provide accurate time. This gives me a chance to refer to a hero of mine called John Harrison, who had nothing to do directly with the Observatory but, of course, also had an important role in our maritime history. When a fleet of warships ran aground with the loss of many lives and ships due to bad navigation, a vast reward was offered by the King to anybody who could come up with a good way to improve navigation at sea. The main problem was how to calculate longitude, and many ideas were offered: for example, a crazy scheme for anchoring old redundant ships at fixed positions apart, distributed across the whole ocean. The establishment was convinced that the only way that longitude could be calculated, was by using the stars and planets. Harrison in the meantime concentrated on trying to develop a precision marine chronometer. His theory, that longitude could be calculated by the use of time to good precision, was treated with great disdain.

To prove his theory, he would be entirely dependent on producing an accurate timepiece. This proved to be a formidable task. Not only had it to overcome a ship’s movement, but temperature played a significant part in the reliability of the timepieces he produced. Originally, clocks used a pendulum and weight with an escapement movement, but temperature would increase and decrease the length of the pendulum, making the precision he was looking for unsatisfactory. He spent many years trying to overcome this, by making the pendulum out of metal rods with different thermal coefficients of expansion, but alas to no avail. It was not until the latter part of his life that he produced the famous Harrison timepiece. The connection to the Observatory in this story is, of course, that the calibration of marine chronometers was subsequently to form an important part of activities at Bidston, in addition to the astronomical work in establishing the longitude of the port of Liverpool.

Accurate time has historically not been very important for most ordinary people – the sun came up, the sun went down, and what happened in between was neither here nor there. However, for those people who did need accurate timing (on land), the development of affordable watches and clocks, supplemented by sundials, was enabling decent and routine measurements of time by the end of the 18th century. One way of providing accurate timing information to the general population was by the use of time balls controlled by nearby observatories such as Bidston. A time ball was a large sphere (a ball) on top of a shaft positioned on the roof of a prominent building. At precisely midday (or another time such as 1 pm), the sphere would be dropped and people (including ships’ captains) would set their watches. This was a satisfactory situation only when visibility due to the weather allowed the time ball to be seen. Instead, the time balls were eventually complemented by an audible signal such as made by a canon. Hence, the famous Liverpool “One O’clock Gun” came into being. Originally the Liverpool Observatory was located at Waterloo Dock, and the gun (a remnant of the Crimean War) was fired from the Liverpool side of the Mersey. An improvement was made by moving the Observatory from Liverpool to the highest point on the Wirral side of the river, but close to the Dock Estate, this being Bidston Hill. The gun was relocated to Morpeth Dock in Birkenhead, and was now fired directly by an electrical signal from the Observatory.

Time eventually became a significant factor in everyone’s life, and now controls our lives more and more. Everyone knows about the advent of the industrial revolution, and the development of the railway, and the national adoption of Greenwich Mean Time. Now we are controlled by our smart-phones by time that comes from space via GPS satellites. Everyone is in a hurry or we’ll be ‘late’.

So I have been thinking back to that first day at work. At that time, I had many questions, such as “Why is the Observatory called The Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides, or ICOT for short?” Or, “What has oceanography got to do with astronomical observations?” These questions were answered for me over the years as I got to understand the relationships between the heavens and earth, and in particular the relationships between time and the tides, and so the ocean, and how these topics have evolved to become a crucial part of everyday life.

This has been a very brief look, from my perspective, at ‘time’ and at some small aspects of life at Bidston Observatory. It would take many volumes to do it justice to it regarding topics such as the development of tide tables, the use of precise instruments (e.g. for earth tides), the collection of oceanographic data from around the world, the fieldwork at many locations etc. Perhaps other people can cover these topics on this web site. Some of the world’s most famous oceanographic scientists have worked at or passed through the Observatory during its history. I feel very fortunate to have experienced a small part of the wealth of that Bidston history. And I hope that its historical significance is appreciated by future generations.