A timeball is a device created to signal the time, usually to ships at sea. It is a large metal or wooden ball which slides up and down a mast normally on the roof of a building. The ball is dropped from the top to the bottom of its mast at a specific time each day, allowing people, sailors in particular, to check the time.
The Timeball Tower in Deal is a four storey building on the seafront. Until 1831 the tower carried a semaphore mast used by the Coastal Blockade to pass signals along the coast about Smuggling Activity in the area. Deal was reputed to be a great smuggling town.
Before that, there was a shutter telegraph, built in 1796. It was at the end of a line of telegraphs, 12 of them, that stretched back to the Admiralty in London. It closed in 1814
The present timeball was put in place in 1853. It operated from an electric signal from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
At 5 minutes before 1:00 pm, the ball is raised halfway as a warning, then at 3 minutes to the hour it is raised the full way.
At precisely 1:00 pm it drops. It was regarded as the most important signalling device after Greenwich at a time when Deal was an important port with a Navy Yard.
Not only were sailors able to have an accurate time signal, but so too were the people in surrounding areas. Several churches kept their clocks accurate by observing the Timeball tower by telescope.
When the navy Yard was closed, wardens were appointed to live in the tower to maintain the system. At one time there was a family with 13 children living there. By 1927 its days were numbered because of the arrival of accurate radio time-signals (the BBC's pip signals). It stopped working on 25 February 1927.
I've scanned in a picture I noticed in our local paper showing a detail of a watercolour by Rosemary Hammond. The foreshore looks very different now, and the few boats left really don't do very much at all apart from allowing themselves to be photographed.