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Gonzales Observatory in Victoria

(A brief history provided by Larry MacDonald, Oak Bay, from


The views from the Gonzales Heights Observatory are spectacular. Built as an aid to marine navigation before the age of radio, the Observatory unites three grand stories: the theoretical importance of time in fixing geographical position, the use of a transit telescope to establish true local time, and the need to correct marine chronometers. 

Victoria residents might enjoy learning the reason for the prominent Observatory, which is intentionally visible to all shipping. This account is based on Malcolm M. Thomson, The Beginning of the Long Dash: a history of timekeeping in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1978).

In days of sailing ships one’s position on the globe combined north-south distance from the equator (latitude in degrees) with east-west distance (meridian in hours, minutes, and seconds) from Greenwich in England. Latitude could be found by sightings, but how could Greenwich time be carried on board to compare with local time? Since reliable pendulum clocks are defeated by boat motion, chronometers were invented using elaborate spring systems for high accuracy. Whenever possible, of course, chronometers had to be corrected (“rated”) by more accurate land-based time sources. 

Until the first world war, for ship’s captains, naval or civilian, global navigation had a reliable part (latitude found through sightings) and an uncertain part (longitude based on time) which depended on linking marine chronometers with terrestrial pendulum clocks corrected by astronomical observations. 

Of course since then there has been an astonishing revolution in technology. Nowadays someone with a smart phone can instantly find their position anywhere on the planet within a few feet by Global Positioning, thanks to a network of satellites incorporating advanced relativistic technologies.   

In 1915 Napier Denison built the Gonzales Heights Observatory to use traditional timekeeping technologies without realizing where they would lead him. But once he recognized the power of radio, he pioneered its use to transform time distribution in BC.


F. Napier Denison, after whom Denison Road along Gonzales Heights is named, now seems a man of action with a mission to tell time. He built the Observatory to use a home-made telescope to find true local time by the stars. By war’s end, he was immediately swept up into the age of radio, and soon became a leader in time distribution in BC. He went on to live with his wife for another 15 years in a modest apartment under his old telescope in the Observatory building. 

Land-based time was found using pendulum clocks checked against star sightings using a transit telescope, which had a strict north-south range. The moment a known star passed a vertical reticule in the scope the time could be compared to its (mathematically predicted from orbital motion) moment of passage on the clock to show whether the clock was losing or gaining. Denison with his telescope and pendulum clocks therefore became an independent source of time. 

His competitor on the coast was the CPR railway telegraph, which took time reckoned at McGill University Observatory and distributed it across the country using a daily special coding for stationmasters to set their clocks. Their accuracies were comparable, but Denison did it himself. 

Denison was first to understand how radio technology was about to change everything. In 1917 he began radio time transmission from the Observatory with a reported coverage of 300 miles. He was soon monitoring radio time transmissions from California, and by 1923 he had established a powerful transmitter at Estevan Point, north of Tofino near Nootka Sound, which had an effective radius of 3000 miles. During this transformation Denison at some point ceased using his telescope and therefore trying to be an independent source of time. His Observatory became an artifact. 

How could Denison afford to build the Observatory? He couldn’t. But the building itself (on the roof of which he later put his transit scope) was paid for and equipped by government as a seismographic station. Probably Denison submitted earthquake reports as required. But seismography in his time was conceptually primitive. It wasn’t until the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s (in which another Canadian, Tuzo Wilson, played a central role) that modern seismography arrived with its global view of crustal movements driven by deep currents in earth’s mantle.  

The prominent, elevated position of the Observatory could, but never did, support a time ball, a large caged sphere, elevated gradually in stages until it was, at the prescribed moment, dropped, enabling distant sighting. Denison used an existing downtown time ball. But the meteorological station (from “hydrometeor” = raindrop) always operated, as it does still, fenced off and automated.  

The Gonzales Observatory endures as a monument to the sea-dominated imperial era in which the city was founded, an era made almost unrecognizable by a century of technological transformation. 

F. Napier Denison, 1866-1945
Creator of the Gonzales Observatory
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