The Timeball station was originally built in 1876 as a navigational aid for ships. This was critical for mariners to reset their chronometers to the correct time when they came into harbour. The site remains significant to New Zealand’s history, and that of international maritime history. As such, Heritage NZ quickly decided it wanted to restore the building, which was a registered Category 1 historic place prior to the earthquakes.
The project involved the reconstruction of the 15-metre high octagonal Timeball tower as a standalone structure and the reinstatement of the Timeball mechanism, Flagstaff and landscaping, using as much of the salvaged original material as possible.
The Timeball is of significant importance to both the local community and maritime heritage and the main aims of the project were to re-establish the tradition of dropping the Timeball and return a useful and well-loved green space to the local community.
The new tower was required to comply with the Building Code, which involved the use of plenty of concrete, steel and block, which was then clad mostly with stone salvaged from the original building. Some badly damaged decorative stonework had to be replaced.
The 1-metre high ball was refurbished. It has a timber frame and is covered with zinc. The replacement mechanism incorporates a pneumatic ram inside a steel column, powered by a 12v compressor and heavy-duty battery with a trickle feed charger. Timing for the ball is provided by a cellphone link which raises the ball just prior to 1pm then drops it at exactly 1pm, taking 10 seconds to return to the cradle at the bottom of the mast. The accurate timing was critical for the ships to set the on-board chronometer so Longitude could be worked out, 4 seconds in time was equal to 6,000 feet in distance.
Access to the site was very difficult as there was no road access. To enable the removal of rubble and lifting of stone, a 25t crane was lifted to the middle of the site from Reserve Terrace using a 160t crane.
Land around the tower has been landscaped as a public park with information about the historic structure. The tower itself is lit up at night but is too small for public entry.
This project was of great importance to the Lyttelton community and had a great deal of publicity. It helped return an important historic place to the people of Canterbury and to the nation and will restore heritage to a place that has lost much of its past and be a symbol of hope for the future.