Merryweather & Sons

Merryweather & Sons of Clapham, later Greenwich, London, were builders of steam fire engines and steam tram engines.
The founder was Moses Merryweather (1791–1872) of Clapham, who was joined by his son Richard Moses (1839–1877).

The Merryweathers worked with the engineer Edward Field to fit his design of a vertical boiler onto a horse-drawn platform. They successfully applied it for use in their steam fire engine, thus improving water pressure and making easier to use once steam had been got up. It was reckoned that an engine could get up enough pressure to pump within ten minutes of a call out; the fire could be started before leaving the fire station so there would be enough pressure by the time they arrived at the scene of the fire.
Appliances were available in small sizes suitable for a country house, pumping about 100 gallons per minute, through to large dockyard models, rated at 2000 gallons per minute.
A common size, popular with Borough fire brigades, was the double vertical boiler, that could pump between 250 and 450 gallons per minute. Merryweather also provided hydrants and mains water supplies for highly vulnerable sites such as theatres, where getting a strong enough supply of water could be a problem.
Dock fires were a particular problem, as the hand-operated appliances of the time had neither the reach nor the power to tackle a blaze on a boat or their large warehouses. After successfully demonstrating the improvement of the steam-powered devices fighting petroleum fires at Antwerp docks, Merryweather’s appliances, with their distinctive crews wearing Merryweather helmets, soon became synonymous with firefighting in Britain and abroad, alongside their rivals Shand Mason.
They also built specialist fireboats, such as a steam-powered fire-fighting barge for the port of Alexandria, designed to pump 1,200 gallons per minute to a height of 200 feet.
The first motorised fire engine in London was a Merryweather appliance delivered to the Finchley Fire Brigade in 1904. It was commemorated in April 1974 by the issue of a 3.5 pence Royal Mail postage stamp. The actual vehicle is preserved in the reserve
collection of the Science Museum at RAF Wroughton, Wiltshire. Another notable survivor is the UK’s oldest known aerodrome fire/crash tender, a 1937 Merryweather with a Commer engine and chassis, now preserved in running order at Brooklands Museum in Surrey.
Merryweather supplied the steam machinery for John Grantham’s steam tramcar in 1873.
Between 1875 and 1892 the factory produced about 174 steam tram engines, of which 41 were used in Britain, 46 in Paris, 6 in Kassel, Germany, 15 to Barcelona, 15 in the Netherlands, 11 in New Zealand and 15 in Rangoon.
6 engines of 1881 went to the Stockton and Darlington Steam Tramway Company.


Dropping Balls to Tell Time

Everyday, at five minutes to one, a bright orange ball on the roof of Flamsteed House at Greenwich’s Old Observatory in London, slides half-way up a pole.

At two minutes to one, it rises all the way to the top. At exactly one PM, the ball falls with a dull thud. Anyone who is looking at the ball when it drops can instantly verify whether their watches are telling the correct time. In this current age, when time could be easily synchronized over the internet or by using mobile signals or GPS technology, “time balls” are superfluous, but back in the Victorian era this was one of the few ways by which time was announced to the public.

Back in those days, few people could afford to have their own watches and clocks, instead relying on the hourly chimes of the church clock to tell time.
The church clocks were not very accurate but most people had no need for precise time.

Things were different for a ship’s captain. Ships needed extremely precise clocks to determine their position at sea, which they did by taking celestial readings and coordinating those readings with the time they were known to occur at another point on earth, such as at Greenwich. The breakthrough came in 1761 when John Harrison, a Yorkshire carpenter, developed a chronometer that was accurate and portable enough to do the job. But Harrison’s remarkable invention was still useless if it couldn’t be set correctly before departing on a long voyage.
The idea of the time ball was proposed in 1829 by Robert Wauchope, a Royal Navy captain. Robert suggested that the time ball be set up at the harbour and dropped at a specific moment to indicate the time. Sailors could view it through a telescope and set their chronometers accordingly.

A visual signal rather than an audio one, as in church bells, was also advantageous. Sound travels slow through the air, taking about three seconds to cover a kilometre. So the farther out the observer is from the source of the sound, the longer it takes to receive the signal. Wind, rain, humidity and other atmospheric conditions also affect the speed of sound. Relying on sound signals to tell time was inherently flawed.
The first time ball was erected in the harbour at Portsmouth, England. It worked so well that in 1833 another one was set up at the Greenwich Observatory on a hilltop —the same one that you see today. The first American time ball went into service in 1845 at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

Time balls were typically dropped at 1pm, although in the United States they were dropped at noon. It’s believed that 1pm was chosen rather than noon because astronomers, who operated the time balls, were always busy doing important observations at midday when the sun is at its apex. Another explanation could be that it was easier for sailors to anticipate the arrival of 1pm after noon had passed than to wait for noon itself.

As the years passed, better time keeping mechanisms were developed such as telegraphic communication and electronic time signals, and time balls became obsolete.
There are over sixty time balls standing at harbours around the world today. A few of them are still operating for the novelty or for tourists, like the one at Greenwich Observatory. Some time balls drop on special occasions, such as the Times Square time ball in New York which drops at midnight on new year’s eve.