Detail of the beautiful Bragg Clock on display in the Museum

Standard Time

As engineers in the early nineteenth century began to dream up the concept of a railway it seems unlikely that they could have realised the massive impact their invention would have around the world. Not only did it revolutionise the way in which we travel, but it directly lead to the implementation of something else remarkable - standard time.

Prior to the advent of trains, local time in Britain was set by sundial, which reads differently based on your location on the Earth. This was not a problem, as one could scarcely tell the difference in the time it took to travel between towns by foot or horseback. However, as the country began to link up via railway, the lack of consistency made it next to impossible to precisely say when trains were going to arrive in a given town. Even today this can prove a difficult task, but just imagine if every stop on your route to work had a different local time. In 1840 The Great Western Railway was the first to standardise its timetable to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Of course, standardising your own timetable is easy.  Getting other towns to agree to use your standard is more difficult. In 1845 The Great Western Railway reached Stroud, which ran nine minutes behind what locals referred to as “London Time”. The notion of adopting a standard time was not necessarily a popular one; a number of cities created public clocks that operated at local time, with an additional minute hand showing London Time. By 1855, 98 percent of towns and cities in Britain had switched to GMT, but Stroud continued to resist. However, as the railway became an increasingly important part of day to day life attitudes gradually began to shift. It was time for a change.

In 1858 this beautiful clock (pictured) was created by local jeweller, optician and watchmaker, Robert Bragg. Originally mounted outside Bragg’s shop on the High Street it was the first to display Railway Time. The clock was wall mounted, weight driven and regulated by a pendulum, which in this case was mercury compensated.

Despite being a bit of a mouthful, the purpose of a mercury compensated pendulum is quite simple - to increase accuracy in time keeping. A major source of error in pendulum clocks is the expansion and contraction of the rod with changes in ambient temperature. When the temperature rises and the pendulum expands, the pendulum’s centre of gravity is slightly lowered, resulting in the clock running slower. In a mercury compensated pendulum, the mercury also expands with the heat, filling a larger part of its glass container, so lifting the centre of gravity and compensating for the lengthening of the rod. The result is a clock that keeps accurate time. And this was fortunate because in 1880 the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act was passed, making the use of GMT a legal requirement throughout Britain. Time could no longer be set by sundial and clocks that kept accurate time were a must.

In 1870 the clock moved with Bragg’s shop to King Street where it stayed until it was vandalised in 1982. Local horologist Michael Maltin restored the clock, at which point it moved to Stroud Library. In 2011 it was transferred to the Museum and now resides in the Staircase Hall, where it is wound weekly by Museum staff and still keeps excellent Railway Time.

Did you know?

The first public railway in the world opened in 1825 and was the Stockton and Darlington Railway in the north east of England.

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