Story: Timekeeping

Page 2. New Zealand mean time

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Bells, guns and other markers

It was one thing to agree on hours of work, but it was another to agree on the exact time. Until the 1870s pocket watches, held on a silver or gold chain, were a luxury for the rich; the gift of a gold watch was a special mark of appreciation. Public clocks were not common. Christchurch’s only public clock in the 1860s had no face and told the time by chimes alone; Auckland had none until 1871. Bells summoned people to church, and were used in schools, on farms (where the cook was often the ringer) and in some businesses and workshops. Both Auckland and Dunedin fired guns at an appointed hour.

At sea, ships established longitude by recording on a chronometer exactly when in relation to Greenwich mean time the sun was directly overhead. On land, from 1864 a time ball visible on the roof of the Custom House in Wellington was dropped at noon each day, so that ships’ navigators could set their chronometers. A transit instrument and an astronomical clock set the exact time. Time balls were set up in Dunedin in 1868 and Lyttelton in 1876. In the absence of other markers, people would adjust their timepieces by consulting almanacs, listing the hours of sunrise and sunset.

Local variations

Each locality had its own time, partly because its longitude naturally affected the time of noon at each place and partly because clocks remained erratic. The Wairarapa earthquake of 1855 was recorded 10 minutes earlier in Nelson and New Plymouth. And in Hokitika in the 1860s the telegraph office closed whenever the boss chose, ‘for there is no public time in Hokitika’. 1

Mean time and apparent time

Mean time establishes noon at regular 24-hour intervals. This eliminates any daily variations caused by the earth’s elliptical path around the sun. However, when a time ball (to be dropped daily, indicating noon mean time) was planned at Fort Britomart in 1859, Aucklanders preferred to follow ‘apparent time’ – reckoned by the exact moment each day when the sun was seen to be overhead.

Establishing New Zealand time

In Britain, synchronised train timetables led to the wide acceptance in practice, if not in law, of Greenwich Mean Time in the 1840s. In New Zealand the need to transmit telegraphs was the catalyst. By 1866 a cable across Cook Strait provided a link from Napier to Bluff (Auckland was not yet connected).

Local time variations were disruptive because the opening and closing times in different relaying and receiving offices might not coincide. So in 1868 the Telegraph Department instructed that Wellington mean time should be imposed in all offices.

In many cases post offices shared the same building with telegraph offices, so they too followed suit. This aroused animosity towards a ‘Wellington’ dictate. The upshot in September 1868 was a parliamentary resolution to establish time for the whole country. This was the first instance in the world of a government implementing standard time nationwide.

East-west/north-south divide

When New Zealand mean time was approved, the original motion was moved by a Dunedin member of Parliament. He stated that a Christchurch mean time was preferable to time dictated from the capital city of Wellington, in the North Island. This was because most of New Zealand lies west of Wellington; the South Island was also more populous at the time. In the event the longitude that was adopted ran just to the west of Christchurch, so the South Islanders almost had their way.

New Zealand mean time begins

James Hector, director of the Geological Survey, selected New Zealand time at the meridian 172° 30'. This was within three minutes of the country’s mean longitude and exactly 11½ hours in advance of Greenwich Mean Time. It came into operation on 2 November 1868.

The Colonial Time Service Observatory, built in Wellington in 1869, determined the exact time by precise measurement of the stars. A signal went to the Wellington telegraph office, which transmitted it to post offices and railway stations by Morse code at 9 a.m. each day. This still depended on human action, and it was not until radio began broadcasting time signals in 1920 that an accurate nationwide time was fully established.

  1. Howard Robinson, A history of the Post Office in New Zealand. Wellington: Government Print, 1964, p. 149. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Timekeeping - New Zealand mean time', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2021)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 12 Jun 2006