18 September 2011

Ruth Belville - the lady who sold time

Ruth Belville sold time. Each day she would set her watch by the Greenwich clock in London and then charge a fee for the privilege of looking at her watch.

Belville’s father had established the business in 1836, when such knowledge was valuable — as railways revolutionized European travel, individual towns had to abandon their non-uniform local times, reckoned by the sun, and adopt instead the standard London time that dominated rail schedules.

For a confusing few years the nation underwent a sort of fugue, with public clocks displaying both London and local time; a few great clocks were even fitted with two minute hands...

But by 1880 the British government had finally established a single standard time for the nation, and when Ruth Belville began selling time in 1892 she was already an anachronism. Remarkably, she continued until 1940, after the advent of World War II — by which time most of her clients were clockmakers.
Text and image via the Futility Closet.


  1. This reminds me that in the 1960s and 1970s there used to be a phone number for getting the "correct time." I called it on numerous occasions, as it was a local call and free, so when setting clocks it was the thing to do.

  2. If you enjoyed it, Elias, you should definitely explore the Futility Closet source, which has lots of similar stuff.

  3. @TravelerDiogenes: in Ireland we still have a Speaking Clock, which can be called from any phone for a small fee.


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