Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 45

The One o'clock Gun : the story of Edinburgh's time service

A Book Review by Dave Gavine

This small book was produced to accompany an exhibition on the Time Ball and Time Gun in the Edinburgh Museum, Canongate, last year. Another small exhibition was set up just before this, near the Gun itself, at the Castle.

It is an interesting story, the Time Ball was, by coincidence, invented by a Captain Wauchope of Midlothian in 1818 but although balls were set up at Greenwich, St Helena, Mauritius and the Cape, it was not until 1852 that Edinburgh got its own signal on the Nelson Monument, and its gun at the Castle in 1861, after a few teething problems. The book summarises with numerous illustrations the story up to the present day, listing all the gunners and the types of gun. There is also a useful summary of the distribution of time signals by telegraph and this involved another Edinburgh man, the clockmaker Alexander Bain, inventor of the electric clock.

However, there are a few drawbacks to the book. The facts are adequately presented but nothing is given about how the time is actually arrived at from the observation of transits of clock stars across the meridian of the Calton Hill Observatory using the Transit Circle, how the observation was done and by whom, and how the signal got to the Time-ball. There is no astronomy in the story whatsoever. The style of English is poor, the sentences short and stilted, spelling is correct apart for the annoying use of "it's" for the possessive; it isn't a narrative, it is an official report.

While the many line drawings are clear, the figures of the soldiers are wooden and expressionless. One, apparently based on a sketch by C. P. Smyth, shows workmen hauling the Monument-to-Castle wire up using a rope, but they seem to be pulling it up in the wrong direction. The picture of the Time Gun (long disused) in Dundee shows the gun far too small in proportion to the man. (I know it well. I used to climb on it with my pals, - then get chased by the "Parkie".)

It is to be hoped that a fuller and more scientific account of the Edinburgh Time Service will emerge in time, meanwhile this small book will give the bare bones and at only £2.50 no-one can grumble. Unfortunately I have not seen it in any shop apart from the Edinburgh Museum.

Dave Gavine.

Cover photograph of book

Bibliographical information:
The One o'clock Gun : the story of Edinburgh's time service /
complied and published by the One o'clock Gun Association /
illustrations by John Thomson /
technical details supplied by A Guinan and John Thomson
[Edinburgh]: The One o'clock Gun Association, 2001
28p, no pagination; No ISBN; £2.50.