Eight geotag journalists exploring your city. This week: Global London.

A short story of time

By Ramona Fischer

Greenwich’s Royal Observatory sees countless people flock to set foot on the Primary Meridian - the dividing line between the eastern and western hemispheres. Little do they know that they are actually lining up in the wrong place.

“Most people just come here to pose for pictures and don’t go further than the Meridian,” says tour guide Tony Nixon. He points to the physical line that crosses the courtyard like a border. “That’s a shame because there is so much more to see here.”

The Royal Observatory marks the location of “longitude 0º 0’ 0” - a historic line that defines Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT) and serves as a reference point for all time around the world.

Tony has been working at ‘the home of time’ for six years. He read the book Longitude by Daba Sobel 18 times and loves to tell the stories that are connected with the historic site.

“When astronomer John Flamsteed was commissioned to build the observatory in 1675, he was completely broke and had to recycle whatever he could find,” says Tony as he raises his finger and traces out the shape of the building in the air.

“The bricks are from a nearby building, the roof originated from an abolished gate house near the river Themes and the foundation was left over of the building that stood here before.“

First terrorist attack

Another little known fact is that the observatory was the first building in the UK to come under terrorist attack.

In 1884, a French anarchist stormed up the hill with a homemade bomb, Tony explains, “Unfortunately the lad was not that lucky. He stumbled over a root half way up the hill and blew himself up before he reached the clock.”

The attack was aimed at the Shepherd Gate clock built into the gate’s wall in 1852 and considered to be the first electric clock to display Greenwich Mean Time to the public.

Tony Nixon explains that it is assumed the French anarchist planned to take revenge for the meridian crossing Paris not being chosen as the reference point for world time.

World standard

In 1884, 41 delegates from 125 nations gathered in Washington to decide from which point time and space should be measured.

“At that time countries and even cities used to have their own local time. This led to the situation that one sent off a telegram and the receiver got it before it was actually sent,” he says.

Because 72 per cent of the world’s shipping already depended on maps from Greenwich, the summit decided to make Greenwich the center of time.

Symbolic meaning

Based on astronomical observation, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich has provided the most accurate data on timekeeping for centuries. It has long served as the central reference for navigation over land and sea.

Today, the site has a “rather symbolic meaning”, laments Tony, pointing to the tourists that flock into the courtyard to watch the old wooden ‘time ball’ that still drops daily at exactly 1pm to define Greenwich Mean Time.

“Satellite-based GPS technology provides much more accurate data than we could ever collect with pure observations,” he says and adds with a smile:

“Today we know that the earth is not perfectly round - and that the real Primary Meridian actually is a hundred meters far east in the middle of Greenwich Park.”

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