3 minutes

Watchmaking History: the business woman who sold the time

By Bert Buijsrogge
Ruth Belville at work Image Royal Museums Geenwhich
Ruth Belville at work, Foto: Royal Museums Geenwhich

Nowadays time is around us everywhere we go. It’s displayed on the computer, your kitchen appliances, and your phone—just to name a few. It’s quite easy to read the time at any given time without glancing down at the watch on your wrist, so it’s hard to imagine that people used to earn money selling time. However, there once was a clever businesswoman who actually made a living by selling the time. A quick look at the history of standardized times should help to build a better picture.

Time synchronisation

Apple Watch Image Apple
Apple Watch, Image: Apple

Most digital time displays are automatically synchronized using the internet. Therefore, they always display the correct time with minimal deviation. Some clocks and watches come with a built-in feature, which allows them to pick up radio-controlled signals. They are updated and corrected on a daily basis. As the owner of several such watches, I can attest to their ease of use.

As you can imagine, this was not always the case. The internet as we know it has only been around since 1990. Some of the earliest modern radio clocks had first appeared only some 7 years earlier. Before that, audio signals were used to transmit time information to radios and TVs. Going back even further, we end up at the Royal Observatory, which continues to play a major role in astronomy and timekeeping.

The Royal Observatory

Royal Observatory, Image: Royal Museums Greenwich
Royal Observatory, Image: Royal Museums Greenwich

At the Royal Observatory, time signals were first sent using a large ball located on the roof of the building. Every day, the ball was raised to the top a few minutes before it would be released at exactly 1 pm. This service started in 1833 and was mostly used by sailors to synchronize their marine chronometers.

In 1852, a large clock was installed on the gate of the Royal Observatory, displaying the current time to the general public. This clock and the time ball were both operated via pulses from the master clock. Over the years, these pulses also began being transmitted by cable to London Bridge. From there it was distributed to other clocks around the country.

Selling time

The Belville family pocket watch Arnold, Image: Clockmakers Museum
The Belville family pocket watch Arnold, Image: Clockmakers Museum

Despite all these advances, you still had to go to the clock to know what time it was. This is where some savvy businessmen came up with a solution. John Belville, an assistant at the Royal Observatory, created a service where he would regularly set his pocket chronometer to the correct Greenwich Mean Time and then would update the clocks of around 200 clients throughout the week. After his death in 1856, his wife carried on her husband’s work until their daughter, Ruth, took over the business upon her mother’s passing in 1892.

Greenwich Time Lady

Ruth Belville at work, Image: Popular Science Monthly
Ruth Belville at work, Image: Popular Science Monthly

Ruth Belville became known as the ‘Greenwich Time Lady’ for her work with precision timekeeping. She would visit the Greenwich Observatory every Monday to reset her chronometer pocket watch made by John Arnold (one of the most influential watchmakers of his time). Just like her father and mother before her, she would visit each of her clients to help them adjust their clocks to the correct time.

Despite attempts to damage her reputation by competitor John Wynne, she managed to keep the business going. During a speech, Mr. Wynne not only called her service outdated but also implied she might have been using her feminine wiles to drum up more business.

The Times newspaper published the speech, causing quite the stir. What the article didn’t mention was that Mr. Wynne owned a company that distributed time signals via telegraph and, therefore, had a vested interest in discrediting Ms. Belville.

Luckily for Ruth, his brutal methods backfired: Every journalist was approaching her for her take on this potential scandal, ultimately providing her with free advertising that resulted in more sales.

As time passed, telegraphic communications grew, and in 1924 radio blips or beeps were introduced. Anyone with a radio now had access to the correct time. However, Ruth Belville managed to keep her time synchronization service running until 1940. At the time of its shuttering, the company had been providing its service for 103 years. Ruth Belville passed away four years later at the respectable age of 86.

Read more

What is the difference between a chronograph and chronometer?

Better Than Perfect – Overengineering in Watchmaking

Seals Of Quality


About the Author

Bert Buijsrogge

I worked in real estate for 15 years. Over the last few years, I've turned my passion for watches and photography into a career. My interest in watches dates back …

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