Lyttelton Timeball Station

Lyttelton Timeball Station

Lyttelton Timeball Station (1876)

New Zealand’s front door

Dava Sobel’s 1996 bestseller Longitude told the gripping story of the race for the 18th century’s greatest scientific prize, the discovery of a reliable instrument for measuring longitude. Until John Harrison invented his ingenious mechanical chronometer and James Cook proved its accuracy, mariners could never be sure how far east or west they were. This meant that they risked getting lost whenever they were out of sight of land.

The chronometer let them compare Greenwich time (as shown on the chronometer) with local time (deduced by observations of the sun); they could calculate their longitude from the difference between the two. Harrison’s little watch probably contributed more to Western maritime expansionism that any improvement in hull or rigging design.

It did, however, have to be checked regularly for accuracy. That is where the timeball station came in. A timeball dropped at a known Greenwich time let masters check the accuracy of their timepieces. Most ports simply added the apparatus to existing buildings, but in its dying days the Canterbury Provincial Council authorised this purpose-built castellated confection atop Officers’ Point. Siemens made the zinc timeball and apparatus and Edward Dent & Co. the astronomical clock, which was calibrated with the Colonial Observatory in Wellington via the Lyttelton Post Office.

The 10.4-m-high tower looked impressive, but the brown Sumner Road scoria was terribly porous and had to be plastered over with a coating of waterproofing stucco after just four years. Even then, the station remained a damp, leaky prison for its keepers and their families, who waited until 1912 for a proper bathroom. Radio made timeballs redundant. Lyttelton’s dropped for the last time as a working piece of maritime infrastructure in 1934. After flag signalling ceased in 1941 the old station housed harbour board tenants.

Restoration work began in the 1970s. Satellites and GPS did not undermine the fascination of this maritime relic, which helped usher in the new millennium before a global television audience on New Year’s Eve 1999. Historic Places Trust staff dropped the ball every day at 1 p.m. until the series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 first damaged and then munted the building.  While demolishing the ruins, the Trust recovered much of the timeball mechanism and its website talks about a long-term plan to rebuild the tower only.

Further information

This site is item number 51 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • Julie Bremner, The Lyttelton Time-Ball Station, New Zealand Historic Places Trust, Wellington, 1979
  • Dava Sobel, Longitude, Fourth Estate, London, 1996

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