Saturday, April 13, 2013

Timekeeping by cannon

I recently came across Wikipedia's article about Cape Town's noon gun, fired every day except Sundays and public holidays.  I'm very familiar with it, having grown up to its periodic window-rattling explosions.  The article brought back many memories.

The noon gun is a custom dating back to the Napoleonic War era.  The time signal was inaugurated by British invading troops in 1795, using 18-pounder smoothbore muzzle-loading cannon fired from a ship in the harbor.  Some of these cannon were left behind when Britain withdrew from the Cape during the Peace of Amiens, then recaptured when she took it over again after the renewed outbreak of hostilities with Napoleon.  For the rest of the 19th century the time cannon were fired from one of the five bastions of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.  However, as the town extended around and then beyond the Castle, citizens increasingly complained about the window-shattering noise of the cannon.  The surviving two cannon were eventually moved to Lion Battery on Signal Hill in 1902.  They are today the oldest smoothbore muzzle-loading artillery pieces in daily use anywhere in the world.

(Click the image for a larger view)

One of the fun pieces of local history was the day in June 1895 when the gun fired rather earlier than usual.  Much hullabaloo ensued.  Let the San Francisco Call tell the story.

Cape Town, South Africa, claims the honor of giving birth to the smallest creature ever known to become a gunner in the Royal Artillery, or any other artillery in the whole world. At the Castle, Cape Town, there is a magnificent gun worked by electricity, used for giving the midday and evening time. One fine day all the military and civilians in Cape Town were astonished to hear the gun go off at 10:30 in the morning, an hour and a half before the proper time, 12 being the usual hour for firing. Messengers came from the general commanding the station, the brigade major, commanding officers of each regiment and battery stationed in Cape Town, and from everybody interested; but the answer was that no person had been near the gun, nor had anybody interfered with the wires, battery or source from which it was fired. All the officers were fearfully puzzled at the extraordinary occurrence, but could give no explanation whatever. The general in command of the station became furious and said that there was mismanagement somewhere, and gave orders for a strict search to be made by the officials for the guilty party, says the New York World.

Search was made, but nothing resulted to throw any light on the extraordinary affair, although the greatest possible pains were taken to solve the mystery. They had practically given the search up when suddenly the news came from the officials saying that the culprit had been caught and arrested. It seems the electric current for firing off the gun is supplied by the Royal Observatory of Cape Town and goes there by means of an instrument known as the relay that is in the central telegraph office of the station, the distance being about 500 yards. The action of the current going through the instrument's main moves a sort of light tongue, which is very finely set, so fine that the least little thing would affect it. This forces the current directly into what they term the time fusees, which have the power of firing the gun at the castle.

On examining the instrument one of the officials found a big brown spider inside. It appears that while having an exploring trip around the instrument the unfortunate spider must have touched this tongue sufficiently to move it, and consequently it fired off the gun. The general commanding the station sent the spider to the Cape Town Museum, where he is now to be seen with a card underneath him entitling him the "Little Gunner", and giving a full account of his adventure with the Cape Town midday time gun, which proved his last adventure, however.

Just goes to show . . . in Africa, everything bites!



Murphy's Law said...

Cool history. I hope to see Cape Town someday, and a few other places where my Boer ancestors kicked British ass before they broke with the civilized conventions of war and went for the families and farms of the Boer in the field.

LL said...

I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland for over a year. There was a gun fired at 1300 every day from the castle. As far as I know, that tradition continues. Regiments rotated through that garrison duty -- unless the Brits have demobilized them. The Ghurka Rifles used to be there frequently.

HerrBGone said...

I have occasionally thought of setting up my own noon cannon albeit much miniaturized with a magnifying glass over the touch hole to affect the timing. My neighborhood is a wee might crowded for that at the moment though.

Old NFO said...

Interesting story, and nice piece of history! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Edinburgh's one o'clock gun still fires, every day but Sunday. I think just about everyone set their watches to it.
My town still has its noon whistle, also very useful!

Roger Ritter said...

I'm not sure I'd want to live in a country where the spiders are armed with cannon!