HK Magazine Archive

How Did Hong Kong Tell Time Before Digital Watches?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 11:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:06pm

The noonday gun might be the city’s best-known timekeeping device, but it wasn’t the official one. In fact, for 48 years the job of keeping time fell to the Hong Kong Observatory, who did it not to the sound of a gun—but to the drop of a ball. And not just any ball: they used a time ball

No, it isn’t a euphemism. In fact it’s an amusingly literal name for this little sphere of Hong Kong history. It’s exactly what it sounds like: A large ball mounted on a pole. Every day at 12:50pm the time ball would be raised to the top of the pole: and at 1pm precisely (as determined by the Observatory) it would drop down the pole, signaling the hour to the entire city. That enabled the mariners in the harbor to set their chronometers for another 24 hours. This was vitally important, because knowing the time at sea gives you your longitude—and knowing your longitude stops you from running into rocks.

The city’s first time ball was actually on a ship: HMS Victor Emmanuel hosted the time ball from 1882 to 1885. Afterwards, a new 6-foot-diameter ball was mounted some 84 feet above sea level at the now former Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui, where Heritage 1881 stands now. Every day (except for Sundays, and when the Observatory guys fell ill) the time ball dropped to mark another day. The building which housed the time ball was recently renovated, complete with replica ball.

In 1908 the time ball was moved to Blackhead Point in Tsim Sha Tsui East, which was the highest point on the entire peninsula. It was mounted on the top of a signal  tower to increase visibility next to the typhoon warning system, and 1928 an extra story was added to the tower, thanks to the increasing height of buildings around it.  But it wasn’t until the end of June 1933 that the time ball was finally decommissioned and scrapped: The rise of radio had rendered the ball obsolete. The signal tower  fell into disrepair. 

The tower was finally restored in 1978, and it stands still at Blackhead Point in the middle of Signal Hill Garden. In the past, the tower soared above Tsim Sha Tsui, a beacon broadcasting the time to the city. Nowadays, it’s dwarfed by the skyscraping towers and apartment blocks which surround this little green slice of the past. Progress pushes us up and on—and who needs to stop and tell the time, when you’re only ever rushing forward?