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Pioneer Square Ball

You know that ball that drops in New York at midnight on New Years? Seattle used to have a street clock like that.

Before I spill the beans, I'd like to get a few things straight.

The ball in New York's Times Square is a "time ball". I've never seen one in person, but apparently they were used to convey time to ships, by dropping the ball right at 1pm. They still exist, and here's one in Greenwich, England on the Thames river, courtesy of tderego on Flickr:


So this was the inspiration when the New York Times electrician built the original Times Square Ball in 1907 at New York's premiere public plaza.

Well before that, Seattle's premiere public plaza - Pioneer Square - had its own time ball just a half block away. Click through to this University of Washintgon archives photo of 1st and Cherry. If you look across the street, you can see a pole right behind the closest horse-drawn wagon. It's in front of the light awnings, and it clearly has a metallic ball on top and maybe a small flag.

How did I find this oddity? I was scraping Google Books and found this in the classifieds section at the back of the September, 1903 issue of The Coast:

(Page 117 of this issue of the Coast if you don't see it there.)

At the end of the copy is the odd sentence "The time ball stands in front." At first I thought it must be a street clock with a round top, like the one that still stands in front of Joseph Mayer's old factory.

Finding the clock should be easy enough at that point, just a matter of finding what the building at 713-715 First Avenue looked like to spot it in a photo. Of course, I was surprised to find no clock. And then the weird post jumped out at me.

I still don't know alot about Gerhard Benninghausen. The Coast ran a story about him in 1904, saying he opened his watch repair shop in Seattle 19 years earlier. Checking the city directories, he's shown as working for Kimball & Son in 1884. That puts him in the select group of pre-Fire jewelers.

I know that he was eventually bought out by an employee of "MacDougal-Southwick", which he mentions being next door in his ad. Louis W. Suter worked for MacDougal-Southwick in 1891, and then became a travelling jewelry salesman. He went north to Alaska in 1900 -- three years after the gold rush started -- and figured out how to get rich by doing business in jewelry in Nome, Alaska. In 1907 he bought Benninghausen's Seattle store, which already wasn't listed in the 1906 city directory. It earned Suter a bio in the March, 1907 issue of The Coast. Oddly, Benninghausen opened up a new store later on and is listed in the 1920 Polk guide.

The photo at the UW archives is undated, but Benninghausen didn't move there until 1900 at least (I need to check a few more Polk guides). Meanwhile, the street clock on the right in the foreground belonged to Albert Hansen. He replaced it in 1906 with a big 4-dial affair. So this photo is from 1900-1906, and I should be able to narrow it down a bit more.

Moreso than the date, though, the pressing question is, how on earth did this time ball work? Was it only dropped once a day? Was it automatic? Did it perhaps signal that the time for streetcar departures? I'd love to know how it worked and what it meant to people.

December 31, 2009