Andrew Caldwell


When we switch on the television to watch the All Blacks playing on the other side of the world, none of us thinks we might miss the broadcast because we’ve got the time wrong. In common with the inhabitants of most countries, we depend on an accurate knowledge of the time for just about eve­rything we do. Modern life could barely be sustained without it, and we take it so much for granted that we hardly ever think about it. However, the assumption that the precise time can always be known dates back little more than a century.

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The first watches and clocks appeared in the 1700s and were the preserve of the very wealthy. There was no standard other than the passage of the sun across the sky by which these early time­pieces could be set. Was a clock fast or slow? It wasn’t easy to know. The time of the sun’s journey across the sky depended on the longitude at which the observer stood, so if that were known, on clear days the times of sunrise and sunset could be calculated; and there was always the sun­dial (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 25). But there was no broad system of national timekeeping; in fact, in a world where transport was powered by horse and wind, there was little need for one. Locally, those within earshot could be summoned to gatherings by means of church bells, horns, and the like. Only in the mid-1800s, with the coming of faster public transport—in the shape of the train—and tel­egraphic communications did the need for accurate regional and national timekeeping arise.

In 1866, the first cable across Cook Strait was laid and regions between Napier and Bluff became connected by telegraph. But in the relaying and receiving offices along the line, hours of opening and closing varied, hindering the smooth transmission of messages, so in 1868 the Telegraph Department proclaimed that all offices had to adopt Wel­lington time. This provoked considerable animosity, in re­sponse to which, in September 1868, parliamentary decree established a single time for the whole country—the first such implementation of standard time in the world. It came into effect on November 2, 1868.

It was Dr James Hector, head of the Geological Survey, who persuaded the New Zealand government of the advisability of adopting a nationwide standard time, or New Zea­land Mean Time (NZMT). He proposed a time 11 hours and 30 minutes ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), its meridian, or line of longitude, being 172° 30’ east—within three minutes (i.e. 3/60°) of the country’s mean longitude. This choice satisfied South Island residents, since the merid­ian passed near Christchurch, making that city’s true solar time the civil time for the rest of the country.

Before the establishment of NZMT, provincial govern­ments had already begun to see the need for at least local time standards. Wellington’s provincial government was the first in the country to set up an official observatory, under the direction of amateur astronomer Archdeacon Arthur Stock. Built in 1869, this was subsequently purchased by the colonial government and became the Colonial Time Serv­ice Observatory. Stock continued to serve as observer, with Hector director of the time service.

Accurate timekeeping—here in seconds—is now sufficiently common place to be used in advertising but 100 years ago when the Dominion Observatory in Wellington opened, any sort of public timekeeping was useful.
Accurate timekeeping—here in seconds—is now sufficiently common place to be used in advertising but 100 years ago when the Dominion Observatory in Wellington opened, any sort of public timekeeping was useful.

What did an observatory have to do with keeping time? It was only through precise measurement of the stars—or, to be strict about it, Earth’s movement in relation to the stars—that the exact time could be determined. This done, the observatory sent a signal to the Wellington telegraph office, which transmitted it to other telegraph offices, as well as post offices and railway stations (post and telegraph of­fices often shared premises) by Morse code at 9 am every day. However, an accurate nationwide time was only fully estab­lished some 50 years later, when radio began broadcasting time signals in 1920. In the meantime, public clocks or in­dicators such as bells and whistles were the means by which the official time was conveyed.

The observatory sat on a piece of land adjacent to Bolton Street Cemetery (today known as Bolton Street Memorial Park). On the death of Prime Minister Richard John Seddon in 1906, it was agreed that the Colonial Time Service Ob­servatory should be torn down to make way for Seddon’s memorial and the Seddon family tomb. According to records, the last items of observatory equipment were removed from the site on the morning of June 21, 1906—the day of Sed­don’s funeral.

The search began for a location on which to build a new observatory. A site near the top of the Wellington Botanic Garden was finally selected, in part because it was shielded from the lights of the growing city, which could have inter­fered with the work of the astronomers.

The observatory was designed by government architect John Campbell in the Edwardian Baroque style. This style was used in many public buildings built in the British Em­pire during the reign of Edward VII (1901–10), and Camp­bell made it standard for New Zealand government build­ings. It drew upon the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who, with Robert Hooke, had designed the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, founded in 1675 by Charles II with the specific aim of fixing longitude. Indeed, when completed in 1907, New Zealand’s new observatory had a number of similari­ties to the Royal Observatory, including a brick exterior and an octagonal room. The observatory was named the Hector Observatory in honour of Sir James Hector, who died the year it was completed.


In 1926 the observatory changed its name to the Domin­ion Observatory, and the time service fell under the um­brella of the newly formed Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). The observatory also came to house New Zealand’s embryonic seismological service. Much of the early timekeeping equipment came from England and Germany, and some considered it—indeed, any scientific equipment—a luxury the government could ill-afford. The government had little interest in science prior to WWII. In a bid to promote science, the observatory broadened its operations, becoming involved in much more than time-related observations. As the August 1993 New Zealand Science Monthly Online put it:

Because of prevailing opinion in the Public Service circles that science was humbug, and all scientists were suspect, especially physicists, the founding secretary of the DSIR, Ernest Marsden, made use of the observatory as a convenient “front” for all kinds of physical science activities.

Seismic observations and the maintenance of standard time were functions easily understood by a clerical administration. Marsden quietly added three physicists and an in­strument-maker to the group working at the observatory, es­tablishing a nucleus of trained professionals who were soon using the cellar workshop to study everything from cosmic rays and the thermal conductivity of pumice concrete to fa­cial eczema in sheep.

European-made pendulum clocks, kept the nation’s official time in the observatory from 1869 until 1962, when quartz crystal and later atomic clocks (bottom), housed at Industrial Research Ltd, took over the job.

In 1941, wartime emergency regulations moved New Zea­land clocks forward half an hour when the current half an hour’s daylight saving was adopted for the whole year. After the war, the Standard Time Act 1945 made this change per­manent, setting what was now called New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) 12 hours ahead of GMT, or Universal Time. The process of keeping track of time changed considerably, too. New Zealand began to rely on the US Naval Observatory in Washington, DC, which broadcast time signals every two hours. However, ensuring absolute accuracy still required a certain skill, for compensation had to be made for the time the signals took to reach the Dominion Observatory—and this varied with the different routes by which the signals trav­elled round the earth, depending on the time of day.

Coinciding with this change, in 1945, the responsibility for all astronomical observations was handed over to the Carter Observatory, also in the Wellington Botanic Garden, and the Dominion Observatory became known as the Seis­mological Observatory.

As observatory spokesman and seismologist George Eiby stated in 1950: “In the past it had been the practice to look to the astronomer for time standards, but it was now becoming a matter for the atomic and electronic engineers.”

In fact, atomic clocks appeared only in 1955, and the wide­spread adoption of an atomic time scale still lay almost two decades further ahead. On New Year’s Day, 1962, quartz-crystal clocks formally replaced the astronomical regulator pendulums that had been in operation since New Zealand had first started keeping standard time. It was not without some bittersweet remembrances that the astronomical clocks were retired. As the Evening Post stated:

Until recently this [time] service has been maintained by the old astronomical regulator pendulums which have been in op­eration without interruption apart from the period of overhaul every two years, since 1869. They have given good service and are as efficient today as they were when they first came into use in the old Colonial Observatory…

In 1972, Co-ordinated Universal Time (CUT)—the long-awaited atomic time scale—gained international cur­rency. In keeping with this development, Parliament passed the Time Act 1974, which defined NZST as now 12 hours in advance of CUT, and time in the Chatham Islands as 45 minutes ahead of NZST.

The quartz-crystal clocks were maintained at the observa­tory, and radio signals relayed from there, through the 1970s and early 1980s, but the clocks were now synchronised with three caesium atomic clocks kept at the DSIR’s Physics and Engineering Laboratory (PEL) in Lower Hutt. In 1987 PEL became responsible for the time service, but after the DSIR was disbanded in 1992, the responsibility for New Zealand timekeeping was transferred to the Measurement Standards Laboratory of Industrial Research Ltd (IRL), which still maintains NZST using three caesium atomic clocks.

IRL’s Dr Tim Armstrong explains how “accuracy” has taken on new meaning with clocks of this sort: “Even within caesium clocks there have been vast improvements. Our old­est caesium clock is about 35 years old, probably one of the oldest of its kind still running. On average it would lose a second every 30,000 years. The two newer models would lose a second every 300,000 years. There are experimental laboratory clocks that would only lose a second every three hundred million years.”

A second now seems to be defined as the time taken for a caesium 133 atom to undergo 9,192,631,770 oscillations in its resonant frequency!


The endless checking and correcting involved in the work of timekeepers has an almost Sisyphean quality to it. A letter from a member of the public in 1925 to the Surveyor General sums it up well:

Such work receives little appreciation, and its designers and ex­ecutors know that it will not—in the vernacular of the street it is not “practical”—but it is done all the same, quietly, faithfully, and minutely; and when it is linked up with the work of other and richer countries it will some day be known by all that New Zealand has taken her full share in providing the material for the world’s advance in knowledge and in material prosperity.

At the observatory a handful of men have quietly toiled to keep the nation on time. As first official observer, Archdeacon Arthur Stock kept time first for Wellington’s provin­cial government and then for the colonial government. As part of his work he also operated a timeball on the top of the customs house on Queen’s Wharf. A large ball was hoisted up a mast and then dropped at an appointed time, provid­ing navigators in harbour with a signal by which to reset their chronometers. Following the introduction of NZMT in 1868, Stock continued to serve as chief observer under the new time-service director James Hector. Thomas King, an accountant who, like Stock, was also well-known as an ama­teur astronomer, succeeded the archdeacon as observer, and in 1887 also took on responsibility for the time service.

The Dominion Observatory came to be a meteorological and seismological station as well as a centre for astronomy and timekeeping. Signals to the timeball (bottom) on the Wellington waterfront—the ball was dropped down the mast at a precise time each day—allowed ships to set their clocks accurately.

In 1911, Dr Charles Adams took the position of govern­ment astronomer. Adams was known for his abilities as an observer and, like Hector, his influence on New Zealand’s scientific development was considerable. He co-founded, and became president of, the New Zealand Astronomical Society, now the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Internationally, he was well-respected for his work on the calculation of cometary orbits. He also encouraged the de­velopment of seismological study and served as government seismologist as well as government astronomer.

On his retirement in 1936, Adams was replaced by Robert Hayes, another observer of great skill. However, there is an uncomfortable asterisk next to Hayes’ name in the history books owing to his lack of formal education. Although well respected for his observational abilities, he was made only acting director of the observatory to begin with. He served thus until 1948, when he was finally appointed director, a position he held for another 12 years before retiring.

George Eiby served in a variety of roles at the observa­tory, including as superintendent when it became the Seismological Observatory. His work on both timekeeping and seismology was excellent, and his book Earthquakes is still considered by many to be the best popular book written on the subject in New Zealand. He was also a consultant to the British government on the detection of underground nucle­ar explosions. Eiby oversaw the time service’s transition to quartz-crystal clocks.


As well as standard time, the New Zealand time service has had to contend with daylight saving. For almost 20 years, parliamentarian Thomas Sidey argued for the introduction of one hour’s daylight saving during summer. His tenacity was rewarded when the Summer Time Act 1927 was passed. Clocks were to be advanced an hour in early November and turned back in mid-March. Hot on the heels of this legislation, however, came the Summer Time Act 1928, which, while bringing forward the date of advancement to mid-October, reduced daylight saving to just half an hour. This put New Zealand Summer Time 12 hours ahead of GMT.

Two more Summer Time Acts, in 1929 and 1933, made further adjustments to the dates on which clocks were to be turned forwards and back. The 1933 Act legislated for the longest period of daylight saving the country has ever enjoyed, starting on the first Sunday in September and finish­ing on the last Sunday in April.

In 1941, as a wartime power-saving measure, Summer Time was extended throughout the year, making it the standard time, an adjustment made permanent by the Standard Time Act 1945. As the Evening Post of April 15, 1952, told it: …in 1945 the chances of getting back that half-hour in the midwinter months were finally scuppered by the passing of the Standard Time Act stating that New Zealand would in future be regarded as at the meridian 180 degrees east of Greenwich and putting New Zealand Standard Time exactly 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Public clocks on ornate towers, such as these examples in Christchurch (top) and Feilding (below) let town-dwellers keep track of the time before watches became common. After the 1931 Napier earthquake, many of the towers were demolished as potential hazards.

Finally, under the Time Act 1974, daylight saving, or summer time, was resurrected in the form of Daylight Time, clocks being moved one hour ahead of NZ Standard Time for the summer months. They were also turned forward in the Chatham Islands, which thus moved one hour and 45 minutes ahead. After a year’s trial, the New Zealand Time Order 1975 prescribed a daylight-saving period starting on the last Sunday in October and finishing on the first Sunday in March.

Official assessment in the 1980s of public attitudes to­wards daylight saving found the practice enjoyed widespread popularity, and the Daylight Time Order 1990 extended the period, which now began on the first Sunday in October and ended on the third Sunday in March.

Nevertheless, daylight saving has had its share of detrac­tors over the years. Dairy farmers, for instance, are gener­ally not keen on daylight saving, for it means that even in summer they start work in the dark. In 1984, the small rural Northland community of Ararua rebelled and rejected day­light saving. That year, while the rest of New Zealand rose an hour earlier through spring and summer, the good people of Ararua slept in. Most people, however, relish the longer evenings daylight saving brings—so much so that the period has once again been lengthened. In 2006, a petition with 42,000 signatures was presented to Parliament calling for a three-week extension. Parliament said “Aye”, and, starting in 2007, daylight saving now runs from the last Sunday in September to the first Sunday in April.

The extension was timed in part so as not to interfere with the start of the fourth school quarter, but as Internal Affairs Minister Rick Barker explained in his announcement of the change, “over the longer term we will also be monitoring the effects on other parts of the economy, such as the energy sector, to see if there are long-term sustainable benefits”.


Large clocks on public buildings were an early means of spreading knowledge of the time in towns. One of New Zealand’s first public clocks arrived in Christchurch in the early 1860s—in 147 packages from England. The clock and accompanying clock tower had been commissioned by the Christchurch provincial govern­ment and designed by Charles Mountfort. Unfortunately, clock and tower had to be separated when it was discovered the tower was too heavy to sit atop the wooden provincial-government building for which it had been intended. Instead, the tower was stored and the clock placed in a stone tower on Armagh Street, where its face couldn’t be seen, so people had to rely on its chimes to tell the time. The clock was removed from this location in 1876 and eventually reunited with its original tower for the commemoration, in 1897, of the dia­mond jubilee of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. In 1930 it was moved to its present site on Victoria Street.

From the 1870s, clock towers proliferated around the colony. As universities, town halls, railway stations and post offices were built, clock towers were often included. John Campbell, the government architect destined to design the Hector Observatory, was responsible for the design of many public buildings, especially post offices that incorporated clock towers.

By the end of the century, in larger towns such as Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin, the cacophony of various public clocks chiming day and night was inescap­able. Citizens complained bitterly about Dunedin’s town-hall clock, erected in 1880. According to the city’s official website, the original chimes were denounced as “discordant janglings, which nightly prevail every quarter hour, making the night hideous”.


Given that in addition to timekeeping the Dominion Ob­servatory also took on seismological duties, it is ironic that the risk of earthquake was one of the main reasons many of New Zealand’s clock towers were torn down. Some were demolished in the wake of the 1931 Napier earthquake as they suffered damage; others were dismantled later as a pre­caution. Christchurch’s Cambridge Clock was originally in a tower atop the town’s post office, but when cracks appeared in the tower following the 1931 earthquake, it was removed. Wellington’s town hall clock tower was dismantled in 1934.

One public clock that, amazingly, survived the 1931 earthquake was in the Napier suburb of Taradale, erected in commemoration of those who had died in WWI.

Although clock towers may have fallen out of fashion by the late 1930s, the need to announce the time to the public was still a concern. Means of delivery varied, as an Evening Post article noted in 1945:

From the polite little dots that peep unobtrusively into 2YA’s broadcast programmes at appointed hours to the sad regret in Wellington’s new waterfront siren or the eldritch shriek of Auckland’s counterpart is a long step which bestrides a multi­tude of audible time-tellers, as varied in their nature as they are in the degree of their welcome.

A visually stunning but aurally inconspicuous way to tell the time was introduced in New Zealand in the 1950s when large floral clocks were laid out in Auckland, Christchurch and Napier. Auckland’s was the first to be unveiled, in 1953, as a commemoration of the queen’s visit to New Zealand. Today, public time-telling devices still fill the nation’s towns and cities, although with the advent of inexpensive and reli­able watches in the last 50 years the need for them has largely disappeared. From displays such as the Deadline Couriers billboard in Auckland, which was set to self-destruct on July 22, 2007, to Invercargill’s Stellar Umbrella sundial, unveiled at the time of the 2000 summer solstice, or Wairarapa’s Stonehenge Aotearoa, the quest for accurate—or innova­tive—time-reckoning has remained a societal fascination.


During his second antipodean voyage (1772– 1775), James Cook was able to employ four ma­rine chronometers to determine the location of the Resolution and Adventure with great preci­sion, even when sailing in uncharted waters. The revolution­ary sea clock had been invented by English clockmaker John Harrison in the mid-1700s, and Cook was one of the first na­val commanders to use the instrument, which kept accurate time even in rough sea conditions. The invention enabled navigators to tell a ship’s longitude by calculating the time difference between local noon and noon in Greenwich, in south-east London.

Although extremely accurate, during long voyages chro­nometers could accrue errors of seconds, and a variety of methods were devised to assist in their resetting, includ­ing the dropping of a timeball at a regular predetermined time, such as every day at 3 pm. The first timeball was set up in 1829 at Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, and many others soon followed.

Lyttelton’s historic timeball has been restored as a local attraction. With more accurate clocks in the last few decades, time seems only to have increased its tyranny over our ever-busier lives!
Lyttelton’s historic timeball has been restored as a local attraction. With more accurate clocks in the last few decades, time seems only to have increased its tyranny over our ever-busier lives!

In New Zealand, three timeballs were eventually erected. The first was the one operated in Wellington by Arthur Stock, built in 1864, while the second was built in 1868 in Dunedin. The third was erected in Lyttelton in 1876. Both the Wellington and Dunedin timeballs were dismantled long ago, but, after some 40 years of lying idle, the Lyttelton timeball was painstakingly restored to working condition, reopening in 1978. Now one of the few working timeballs in the world, it is described by the New Zealand Register of Historic Places as follows:

The timeball mechanism is fifteen metres high. The timeball is a hollow sphere made from a wooden frame covered with thin sheets of painted zinc. It measures one-and-a-half metres in width and weighs over 100 kilograms. An Oregon pine mast is threaded through a hole in the ball’s centre. The ball is hoisted by handwheel to the top of the mast and rests there on a catch. When the catch is pulled away the ball is released and drops down the mast. At a predetermined time the timeball was re­leased. Ships in the harbour took their readings at the instant the timeball left the top of the mast.

From 1876 to 1916, the Lyttelton timeball was raised and released every day at 1 p.m., except when the wind was high. In 1916, the astronomical clock that had been used at the station for timekeeping was lent to the Hector Observatory as a back-up, and from then on a telegraph signal from the observatory activated the dropping mechanism. By the end of WWI, the timeball was being dropped only twice a week, at 3.30 p.m. As more and more vessels relied on radio signals to give them the correct time, the timeball became superfluous and, after 58 years of service, was retired on 31 December, 1934.