Arctic Adventure 43 – Time Keeping

When I came to CB in February I knew that something was missing from the last time I had been here in 2006. I kept meaning to ask about it but always forgot. Then a few days ago it came back – the Noon sounding of the emergency siren at the Hamlet building, and then again at 10:00 p.m.

As usual some research was required and I turned to trusty Google and Wikipedia. The practice of a daily “signal” seems to have started in the late 1700s when a cannon would be fired at a given time over a port town. The purpose of this – before the advent of portable timepieces – was to allow ships in port to check the accuracy of their marine chronometers (a precision instrument used aboard ships to help calculate longitude). Although other means of setting the time came along early in the 1800s these were visual so the use of guns continued as a means of communicating that to the ships. In any event it had to be kept in mind that the gun report might be inaccurate for ships several kilometers away if they did not correctly compensate for the relatively slow speed of sound !

By then, too, the general population had become used to the gun report as a daily time signal and some cities still keep up the tradition for old time’s sake (good pun eh ?). One of the most well-known – that I have personally experienced – is the noon gun in Cape Town, South Africa, but a few others are Hong Kong (noon), Edinburgh (1:00 p.m.), Halifax, Canada (noon) and Vancouver (9:00 p.m.). (Interestingly I have visited all of these cities but only ever heard the Cape Town gun !)

Back to my siren story. In many small communities throughout North America sirens were installed for multiple purposes – for weather warnings such as impending tornadoes; air attacks during WWII and into the cold war era ; and, most commonly, to summons local voluntary fire fighters in the event of a fire. It seems as though it became common practice to test ones siren every day to make sure that it was working and for some reason Noon became the default time of day. Perhaps because the modern day siren became synonymous with the old-time steam whistle which had been used for signalling times throughout the workday at factories and mills, people now started using the siren as a means of time signal.

In the Arctic communities all of the above would have applied but since the general population would not have been used to having a timepiece, the signalling of the time by the siren blast became an important daily tool. Despite the advent of multiple timepieces in life now – cell phones, household appliances, vehicles etc – the siren tradition continues in the Arctic. Noon indicates the time for everyone to stop work and head home for lunch hour. The second 10:00 p.m. signal is for young people to be off the streets and at home for the night. Apparently this is enforced by bye-law officers patrolling the community after the signal and rounding up any miscreant teenagers. I am trying to verify if this still happens or if the 10:00 p.m. siren is just there as a tradition.

The video clip was taken at noon a few days ago from my office window which looks out at one of the main intersections in town – try and watch to the end as there are some fun scenes of kids walking past ! At the beginning you can hear the siren and then see the major traffic rush of CB that takes place every working day as the majority of people head home for lunch. (It is more pronounced than the traffic at the start or end of the work day !) Interesting to see the same routine each day and how some people drive fast whilst others are more sedate.

Another community – Kugluktuk – uses their siren to wake up children in the morning to go to school on time ! See story

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