Running on Albany time

the first dudley observatory

The first Dudley Observatory, in north Albany.

By Carl Johnson

In our global civilization, we're accustomed to dealing with time zones and standard definitions -- Greenwich Time, Eastern Time, Daylight Savings Time.

If one plan from before the Civil War had succeeded, the Northeast might have been on Albany Time.

It started in 1851, with the founding of the Dudley Observatory.

How it started

The Dudley Observatory was formed in an effort to create a world class astronomical observatory in the capital city. The observatory had a local board of trustees and a nationally recognized panel of scientific advisers, including Dr. Benjamin Apthorp Gould, Jr., the first American to receive a PhD in astronomy. 

A precision clock was essential for any observatory at the time, and plans called for a "normal clock," to be built to the greatest precision possible at the time. Erastus Corning (great-grandfather of the famous mayor), who had recently merged 10 railroads into the New York Central Railroad, donated $1,000 toward the clock, which quickly came to be known as the "Corning clock." 

Creating the Corning clock

Dr. Gould commissioned a well-regarded maker of chronometers, Moritz Krille of Altona, near Hamburg in Germany, to build the Corning clock.

"The whole is to be air-tight, and a compensation for barometric changes introduced . . . As the clock is to be sheltered as much as possible from changes of temperature, and no loud sound will be necessary for the beat, great delicacy seems attainable. . . . " 

Time and the railroads

As necessary as this was for astronomy, Dr. Gould also had plans for the clock that were very down to earth: he wanted to sell accurate time to the railroads. 

As Harper's New Monthly Magazine noted in 1856, "An exact knowledge of time is also of vital importance to the conductors of all railroad trains. A small error in a conductor's watch has repeatedly been the occasion of the collision of railroad trains, and the consequent destruction of human life."

This had led, in Europe, to the establishment of Greenwich time, where the observatory at Greenwich would send out signals by means of dropping a ball from a mast and sending out an electrical signal to the local telegraph system. But while there was a form of standard time in Great Britain, US railroads still relied on highly inaccurate local time.

With the Corning clock on order, in early1856 Dr. Gould wrote the directors of the New York Central Railroad Company, stating the advantages of absolute accuracy of time for railroad operations, outlining how telegraphy was used to give time in Britain, and offering to furnish the railroad with accurate time for the price of $1500 a year. The railroad immediately accepted the offer. Similar offers were made to the Hudson River Railroad and the Western Railroad. "Should the time of any other place, such as Springfield, Worcester or Boston, be preferred to Albany time, it can be given with equal correctness and facility." 

Selling time

But railroads weren't the only target markets for Albany Time coming from the Corning clock; Dr. Gould also proposed that Utica, Rochester and Buffalo "be told that the Observatory is ready to regulate their large church clocks or small chamber time pieces, to their own local time."

Even the Big Apple was included: "it would be our pride and pleasure, from and after the day of the Inauguration of the Dudley Observatory, to give accurate time to your city, within the fraction of a second, by the dropping of a time ball."  He also noted that "New York City is so nearly on the meridian of Albany that it ought to use Albany time just as all England uses Greenwich time." The observatory proposed to make a significant portion of its revenues by dropping "time balls" all over the state. Albany Time would be the New World's version of Greenwich Time.

Time out

But the inauguration of the Dudley Observatory was, on many levels, a disappointment. Necessary equipment, including the Corning clock, did not arrive in time. In fact, the building was incomplete and the inauguration ceremonies were held under a tent. Once equipment did arrive, some of it sat in boxes for more than a year. This was a sign of things to come.

Albany Time never happened.

The clock and the time scheme were among many things that did not get done under the leadership of Dr. Gould, leading to a huge falling out between the trustees and their scientific advisers in 1858. The trustees were shocked to learn that this plan of selling standard time would require the laying of a new dedicated telegraph wire, an astronomical expense, in advance of any revenues. As the Dudley trustees put it in a scathing report of their breakup with Dr. Gould, "No 'time ball' fell in the great commercial emporium. No bond of ever acting sympathy linked together the clocks of Rochester, Buffalo, Troy and Albany. No railroad station exhibited . . . any evidence that the trains . . . were deriving their time from the Dudley Observatory."

For this and numerous other reasons. Dr. Gould was shown the door, quite literally; having spent as little time in Albany as possible during the organization of the observatory, he now had to be escorted from the observatory by police acting under a judge's order.

A year and a half after its commissioning, The Corning clock remained unfinished, Erastus Corning kept his $1000, and a less ambitious timepiece ultimately took its place.  A time ball was established on the Capitol in 1860, though it was not connected to the clock. For a short time that same year, a signal was sent from the Dudley to a time ball in New York City as well. But it was too late for Albany Time.

Significant research at the Dudley Observatory didn't resume until 1876, but it lives on as the oldest independent astronomical research organization in the United States (it's now in Schenectady). And, despite the example set by Britain and Dr. Gould's forward-thinking proposal, standard time didn't come to North America until 1883.


For a history of timekeeping, see Ian Bartky's Selling the True Time: Nineteenth-century timekeeping in America.

photo courtesy of the Dudley Observatory


Wow... fascinating story!

I love the history segments! Keep 'em coming!

And this is why AoA is the greatest blog evah! Well, at least in our little corner of the interwebs.

Great stuff, AoA!


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