Durban’s Timeball

On the corner of Browns Road and Timeball Boulevard in the Durban Point area stands a rather noteworthy memorial, one which I am ashamed to admit I completely missed for years despite my penchant for all things nautical. Naturally I had to know more and while information is sketchy at best, I did manage to piece together a bit of interesting information along the way.

Without landmarks to navigate at sea, mariners would use the position of the sun to chart their position, relying on information provided by an observatory. In 1833, the same year that the timeball was erected by the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, an astronomer at the Cape would climb onto the roof of the observatory each night to fire a “flash pistol” at a set time. Prior to this, cannons had been fired at certain times, usually sunset and sunrise in conjunction with the time being published in the local newspaper.

The first timeball in South Africa was erected in Cape Town in 1836, later followed by other harbour towns. Similar in concept to the New York Times Square famous New Year’s timeball, the ball would be raised halfway up the tower at 12.55 pm, then raised to the top of the tower at 12.58pm. At one o’ clock the ball was dropped, giving mariners the time and position they required for navigation. If the ball malfunctioned, a blue flag with a white centre was raised to notify mariners that the timeball couldn’t be relied on that day.

The Natal Astronomical Observatory in Currie Road, Durban was established in the early 1880s, allowing for a timeball to be erected near the harbour mouth a little later, in 1883. At this time, Durban was on a different time zone to the Cape Colony Uniform Mean Time, being half an hour earlier, on Natal Uniform Mean Time. The time zones were merged in 1895.

In the early 1900s, Durban’s timeball was moved to the Bluff that protects the harbour, near the original lighthouse, and later slipped into obscurity with the advancement of other time-keeping and navigational means. The observatory was closed in 1911 due to lack of funding.

With the development of the Point Waterfront area, the new timeball was designed and unveiled in 2004, incorporated into the information kiosk, amphitheatre and ablution block next to a canal that flows through the area. Sadly it is no longer functional due to exorbitant maintenance costs, but still stands proud none-the-less.

Latitude: 29°52’14.52″S
Longitude: 31° 2’54.52″E