Visual signals were important features of any port, necessary for communication between ship and shore, in pre-radio times. The Timeball Station sustained devasting damage during the Canterbury earthquakes but the site remains significant to New Zealand's history, and that of international maritime history.
The Timeball's story....
Like a Scottish castle dominating the scenic port of Lyttelton, the Timeball Station was one of the few of its kind left in the world.
From 1876 to 1934 a ball dropped from its mast on its stone tower, signalling the time to ships in Lyttelton Harbour. Visual time signals were important features of many of the world's ports, being necessary to correct ships' chronometers and ensure accurate navigation. The timeball apparatus came from the well-known German firm Siemens Bros, and the astronomical clock from Edward Dent & Co. of London, who had made the Big Ben clock.
Use of the timeball was discontinued in 1934 when it was replaced by radio signals, though flag signals continued until 1941. The flags, which predated the Timeball Station, were used on the flagstaff nearby to signal to ships and to communicate shipping advice to the town.
A fine example of Victorian technology, the Timeball Station was one of only five in the world known to be still in working order. It was a rare piece of maritime history, fabulously restored and boasting spectacular views over Lyttelton Harbour. Sadly, the building was significantly damaged in the Darfield Earthquake on 4 September 2010, and damaged beyond repair in the event of 22 February 2011.
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The next chapter
The earthquakes and the consequent essential deconstruction of the remains of the station reduced this fantastic and internationally significant maritime site to rubble. While the dust settled, workers numbered the tower’s stones and stored them in crates, and plans were devised to fund and re-erect the tower. A full rebuild of the complete Timeball Station was simply not possible, but with so much of the building’s fabric retrieved, recorded and stored, we were able to rebuild the tower, let the timeball rise again, and put back the flagpole. The plan was ambitious and unique – a heritage building like this has never been rebuilt in New Zealand.
The tower was reconstructed in the style of the original stonemasonry, complete with a newly coated zinc timeball painted in its original colours. The timeball itself drops at 1pm each day. The addition of feature lighting makes for stunning evening viewing of the tower against a night backdrop.
The foundations are all that remain of the much more substantial building that before September 2011. Near the timeball tower, you can see the concrete and brick footings that help us to 'read' the building’s floor plan and its various additions over the years.
Light, camera, action!
The $3 million project got underway in July 2017, with the timeball itself hoisted into place in late June 2018. Proudly reopened on 2 November 2018 with landscaped grounds have been landscaped to create a pleasant spot for relaxing, catching harbour views, watching a busy port and allowing this landmark and its maritime and human history to live on.
The project was managed by The Building Intelligence Group and the main construction work on the tower was carried out by Hawkins. Stark Bros Ltd of Lyttelton repaired the timeball using the original wooden frame and a new zinc skin. The stonework, using original stones pinned to a new quake resistant core, was completed by specialist stonemasons Bosworth and Barthal Stone Restoration.
They say seeing is believing – and a time lapse camera was installed at the site capturing progress of the build every 10 minutes from 6.30am to 5.30pm during work hours. Thanks to Hawkins and the team at Project Story for making this possible.
For a short time (but not much longer), you can look back on the daily progress by visiting http://lytteltontimeball.projectstory.co.nz/.
Watch a video compiled from footage of the timelapse camera showing all the work from July 2017 until January 2018 in a few fascinating minutes.
Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga would particularly like to thank the key donors involved in returning the Timeball tower and Timeball to Lyttelton:
- Landmark Inc (foundation donor)
- Lottery Grants Board
- Stout Trust and Parkinson Memorial Park Trust (administered by Perpetual Guardian)
- Mainland Foundation.
We'd like to acknowledge these donors and all those in the community who literally have helped to lay the foundation for the project and return the tower and the timeball to the Lyttelton skyline.