If the 7 p.m. train pulls into the station when the clock on the wall strikes 7:01, was the train a minute late or the clock a minute fast? How do we know that “our” time is the correct time? Since the invention of GPS satellites and quartz clocks implanted in modern devices, the idea of doubting the digital numbers on our iPhone displays is blasphemous.
But if we journey back to the 1800’s we can follow the evolution of time-keeping and clock syncrasy as it progressed through Harvard and the greater Boston area, eventually culminating in the establishment of the American “time zone” today.
The year was 1839. William Cranch Bond was a clockmaker and astronomer living in Dorchester, Mass. Bond had been commissioned by the United States government under Captain Charles Wilkes to conduct measurements of longitude and “other scientific purposes” for the Navy’s Exploring Expedition of the Pacific Ocean.
Bond’s home, where he lived with his wife Selena Cranch—also his first cousin—was furnished with a large, granite telescope pier upon which he could configure his collection of scientific instruments.
For many years, Harvard had been actively seeking the necessary funds and proper arrangements for the construction of an astronomical observatory. After gaining permission from Congress, Harvard University President Josiah Quincy facilitated the relocation of Bond’s observatory to the Dana Estate, which is the current site of Lamont Library. There, Bond was appointed “Astronomical Observer to the University,” and continued his work for no salary.
By 1843, the public had acquired an incredible fascination with the observatory at the Dana House. Donations poured in, and Harvard decided to purchase its highest quality, most magnificent scientific instrument yet: the Great Refractor.
A 20-foot-long wooden tube and 11-ton granite block made up the device. Years later, Bond and his son, George P. Bond, would be the first to observe Saturn’s eighth moon and innermost ring through this very lens.
Bond maintained his role at the College, while also managing his father’s Boston-based watchmaking business, William Bond & Son. The Bonds’ company’s original purpose was to build and repair marine chronometers used by the Navy and other commercial maritime companies along the Boston port.
By 1848 Bond’s chronometers continued to be recognized for their unparalleled precision, but the next step was solving the problem of clock syncrasy. How could he ensure that all of his clocks were displaying the same exact time?
Bond was entranced by his extensive research and experiments. During one project, in which Bond, in his observatory in Cambridge, communicated with an Observatory in Peter Stuyvesant’s garden in New York City, he had a sudden realization.
Two clocks would synchronize almost perfectly if he attached a metal tab, acting as a break circuit device, to the escapement of the clock, which would automatically transmit the beat of the first clock electrically through a telegraph wire to the second.
Bond and his sons developed a prototype of an instrument known as a drum chronograph using a rotating paper-covered cylinder. They called it the “Spring Governor.” By 1851, they had perfected the technology and were able to send electronic signals from the clocks in the Cambridge Observatory to clocks in Boston through telegraph wires.
The issue of synchronizing became especially problematic for the New England railroad companies. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant inaccuracies often led to devastating crashes. Between 1831 and 1852, 32 train wrecks kill 73 passengers.
In 1853, however, these numbers skyrocketed as the country witnessed another 65 accidents injuring 333 and killing 176. A famous switch mishap and head-on collision between the Boston and Providence Railroads caused them to reach out to Bond & Son and the Harvard Observatory for help.
Bond’s technology revolutionized the timekeeping industry, as railroads and other Boston businesses set their clocks according to “the true time at Boston as given by William Bond & Son.” Pleased by the public’s fascination with his obsession—exactness. Bond was happy to supply the electric pulses to Boston companies as a free service.
Bond and his sons had passed away by 1866. Throughout the 1870s, however, the Observatory transformed into one of the major “mother clocks,” sending time signals throughout the Boston area. The demand for this time rose, as watches and clocks telling Bond’s time become status symbols.
Between 1872 and 1892, the Harvard Observatory began making a profit of $2,400 a year from selling the time. By then, more than just railroad companies relied on Bond’s time. Wires snake through the streets of Boston, connecting the Observatory to private individuals as well as manufacturers.
By 1892, the Observatory faced steep competition from time-selling companies such as Western Union. It earned its last profit of about $3,000, before time standardization was taken over first by the U.S. Naval Observatory, and eventually the Interstate Commerce Commission. The “American time zone” was officially established in 1918.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries introduced Einstein’s theory of relativity and Poincaré’s maps, both of which challenged all recognized timekeeping and cartographic methods. While Harvard’s Observatory discontinued its signals, it expanded immensely and continued to conduct observations and research.
Today, in 2017, some of the original collection of Bond chronometers, clocks, and other chronographs are on display at the Putnam Gallery. Though modern time-telling no longer relies on celestial observations or telegraph wires, it’s clear that William C. Bond was ahead of his time.