Today in 1854, the birthday of a very important person in the history of how we keep track of time: Ruth Belville, who has been called the “Greenwich Time Lady.”

She was born at a time when time was not nearly as standardized as it is today.

People often set their home clocks to a local sundial, or maybe the sounds of church bells or factory whistles, but those might still be a few minutes off from each other.

So one town’s 8:15 am might take place a little before the 8:15 am in the next town over.

In England, the most accurate time could be found at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

People would drop by and ask astronomers for a peek at their clocks, set with help from their fancy equipment.

Only this distracted the astronomers from their actual work.

The Astronomer Royal in Greenwich, England, John Pond, decided to delegate the job of dealing with the time-curious to his assistant: John Henry Belville, Ruth’s father.

The elder Belville became a time entrepreneur, buying a top-end chronometer that he regularly synced up with official Greenwich time and selling the time to clients.

They included financial institutions, chronometer makers, even wealthy people who wanted the status symbol of really accurate time.

John Henry Belville continued this work for the rest of his life.

His widow picked up from there, and at the end of her life, Ruth Belville took up the job.

She would go weekly to the observatory and get a certificate to show the accuracy of her special timepiece, which she named Arnold.

And she carried on doing this for decades, becoming known as the Greenwich Time Lady and infuriating some big names in the telegraph business who wanted those customers to use their service instead.

They launched a kind of PR campaign against her, mocking her business and spreading rumors about her character and virtue (!)

It didn’t work: Ruth Belville stayed on the job until 1939, when she was well into her eighties.

Of course, by then, times were changing.

People could get the latest time from the radio, later from the TV.

There have also been phone numbers you could call to get the time.

And today, phones, computers and smart watches sync up automatically to atomic clocks that are even more accurate than the systems the old astronomers used to use.

In a way, the time carriers come to everybody now.

This weekend in Las Vegas, the National Grocers Association is holding the Best Bagger National Championship!

The official description speaks for itself: “Elite baggers from across the country vie for the championship title and a $10,000 cash prize during the evening event.”

History: The lady who sold time (New Scientist)

2024 Best Bagger National Championship

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Fox Photos/Hulton Archive, via Wikicommons