It is said that in 1557 when Emperor Charles V retired to a monastery with his watches and clocks he could not make them accord. Charles wryly observed that he must have been a fool to have believed he could make all men think alike, when he could never even get his clocks to do so. Synchronisation of clocks has long been important for navigation and became essential with the advent of the railways. A traditional sundial has the obvious problem that it is useless on a cloudy day and other disadvantages such that noon varies both with longitude and time of year. Robert Lewis Jones of Hoole played a part in getting the time right.
Jones started as an “industrial” chemist, inheriting the works his father owned at what is still known as “Chemistry Lock”. He made chemicals for the tanning industry and for use in inks and paints. When the railways arrived in Chester he changed jobs and eventually became the Station Manager at what is now Chester General. As Station Manger he lived at Brook Lodge, on Hoole Road just to the north of Hoole Bridge – today it would be 1 Hoole Road. These were the years of “Railway Mania” when new lines were being established and competition was so cut-throat that Lewis Carroll parodied it in the “Hunting of the Snark” with: “you may threaten his life with a railway share...”.
The line from Chester towards Warrington opened in late 1850 and one of the first money-making opportunities was Chester Cup Day in 1851. “Specials” would be run “as soon as filled up” and a flyer including those words was just about the only instruction Jones was given as to how he should organise things at Chester. Following the races, with the weather turning poor, the scene at Chester Station quickly became chaotic. Jones himself had to get passengers off the roofs of carriages as trains became completely overcrowded with race-goers trying to get home. One train was so overloaded that it needed a “boost” from an extra engine as far as Mickle Trafford.
Some attempt was made to space following trains apart. However, the railway company did not provide their staff with watches and the only time available to them was the station clock – not visible from the platforms. As one packed train approached Sutton Tunnel it could barely maintain traction as sleet fell: and there was no sand for the rails. Eventually it stalled at the tunnel entrance. The driver of second train following behind offered a helpful shove and the two trains struggled into the darkness of the smoke-filled tunnel. No-one thought to post a man at the entrance to warn following trains.
Then along came a third train, making better speed. The driver confessed he could only see a few feet but nevertheless he plunged into the tunnel peering through his glass. There was an inevitable collision, but no fire, which would have turned the tunnel into a blast-furnace. Of the 1600 passengers trapped in wooden wreckage some died and many were injured, but it could have been far, far worse. The inquest and inquiry decided that there were several causes, among which was the time-keeping at Chester.
In the aftermath of what could have been an infamous disaster Station Manager Jones decided he would do something about time-keeping and investigated the electrical synchronisation of clocks. He used the well-known clock on the frontage of Chester Station for his experiments. An electrical system for connecting clocks was already known but had certain disadvantages – it relied on a single wire and a continuous electrical connection. Jones invented an improvement, where the clocks would continue to run if the connection was poor or broken.
Jones patented his system and it was adopted widely, including to operate the “Docker's Clock” in Liverpool from the observatory at Bidston where astronomers determined the time. Other observatories also adopted the same method, including Dunsink in Ireland - and Jones' "time brought by wire" is even mentioned by James Joyce in "Ulysses". Conveniently, Jones system avoided the patent on the earlier synchronisation method, and was bought up by the “Magnetic Telegraph Company” who needed to avoid the rights controlled by their rival, the “Electric Telegraph Company”. Magnetic were deeply engaged in what was the Internet of the day, being involved both with Liverpool's telegraph connection to Holyhead and the undersea cable to Ireland.
Curiously, a near neighbour of Jones was also involved with long distance communication, although it is unknown whether Jones played a part in his interests. Just over the road from Jones home at Flookersbrook lived the Pickerings, the Walkers and the Lightfoots, who were engaged in the traditional Chester “biotech” industries of tanning, malting and brewing. One Pickering started in a brewing partnership with a Walker, but left to become a banker in Liverpool. He was approached by a certain Cyrus West Field who was seeking investment for the then outrageous idea of laying a telegraph cable across the Atlantic. Pickering thought the idea worth trying and became a director of Field's company. When the cable was completed in 1858 the first message was to be from Queen Victoria to the American President, but according to accounts, Pickering himself tapped the operator on the shoulder and handed him an alternative first message which ended “...on earth peace, goodwill towards men”.
The Pickerings, Walkers and Lightfoots are remembered in the street-names of Hoole. Jones clock system is mentioned by James Joyce where Leopold Bloom ponders on the "clock worked by electric wire from from Dunsink", but Robert Lewis Jones himself is largely forgotten.