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Monique Keiran: Timekeeping has evolved over the years

We lost an hour last night. Don’t send out a search party. The hour is not hiding under the bed or communing with dust bunnies at the back of the closet. It hasn’t eloped with a dish or a spoon, or ridden a cow bareback over the moon.

We lost an hour last night. Don’t send out a search party. The hour is not hiding under the bed or communing with dust bunnies at the back of the closet. It hasn’t eloped with a dish or a spoon, or ridden a cow bareback over the moon.

Our concept of time, with its discrete hours, minutes and seconds, is a result of our need for predictability and stability, and the progress of our technology.

Before moment-to-moment measurement became possible, we relied on the Earth’s tilted, spinning loops around the sun to measure time. Every sunrise, sunset, high noon, or full or new moon brought a new unit of time.

The sun’s creep along the horizon signalled seasons. Animals and our own patterns provided points of approximate precision to our days. Wrinkles creeping across faces, children becoming adults, saplings maturing into trees and other signs indicated decades.

Technology overturned that. Fire and electricity made night into day. Clocks introduced minutes and seconds, making promptness, regular schedules and shift work possible.

Even after clocks became portable, sailors relied on the sun to determine how far east or west they had travelled. Ships’ captains determined high noon where they were, set one timepiece on board to that time, and compared the difference against another timepiece.

On any ship flying the Union Jack, that second time piece was set to Greenwich time, in England. In those pre-GPS days, time accuracy was essential for ships in port to set their timepieces and measure position.

As a major shipping port for the British Empire, Victoria benefited. For example, in February 1859, the Victoria Gazette reported that Captain Trevett of the Hudson’s Bay Company steamer Labouchere, which was in harbour, consented to fire a gun at noon every Thursday, so that the citizens of Victoria could “regulate their time pieces and obtain the true time.”

Two decades later, the Work Point garrison had established a time-keeping routine by firing its time gun at eight or nine o’clock on Monday nights.

But the Pacific Station of the British Navy had to maintain timekeeping standards. The most senior British Navy ship in port co-ordinated the dropping of a time ball at local noon every day, with ship’s officers determining when local noon occurred.

The navy balldrop was held to be accurate to within one-half second, whereas the Work Point gun was, well, approximate.

Victoria started receiving standardized time signals from Montreal via telegraph line in 1890, but in 1915, meteorologist and astronomer F. Napier Denison set up a more precise local time service. Working out of the newly opened observatory on Gonzales Heights, he arranged for a time ball to be mounted atop the Belmont Building at Government and Humboldt streets. At one-half second to 1 p.m. every day, Denison pressed a telegraph key at the observatory and, three kilometres away, the ball dropped on the hour — within one- or two-10ths of a second of accurate time.

Denison later relayed a wireless time signal to Esteven Point to aid shipping traffic, and gained control of the timing of the noon and 9 p.m. guns to increase their accuracy.

Progress marched on. By the mid-1920s, time in Victoria was set according to time signals radioed from California. The CBC began broadcasting Canada’s official time signal from Ottawa in 1939. With this advance, generations of Canadians began setting their watches and clocks by the words: “The beginning of the long dash marks 10 o’clock Pacific daylight time.”

Some of the Ottawa clocks that measured standard time for those early broadcasts were later transferred to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich, to be used in research there. They are now displayed in the observatory’s interpretive centre.

Today, we schedule ourselves according to time as determined by Apple, Samsung or Microsoft. Our mobile devices and computer networks clock our minutes, days and years. They track our movement east and west across time zones, automatically resetting to keep us up to date and on time.

And they automatically switch from standard time to daylight time.

But, every spring, we still feel as though we’ve “lost” an hour.

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