City Informer: Who Sets Off the Nine O’Clock Gun Every Night?

Here in Vancouver, every night at 9 p.m. sharp (PT, duh), a blast rings out from Stanley Park. It’s not an alarming new breed of exploding crow, no: it’s the sound of the iconic 9 O’Clock Gun, which has the proud distinction—and I am confident in saying this—of being Vancouver’s most accurate time-keeping weapon.

The cannon goes off each night to remind the ships in port to sync their chronometers (which hopefully is not a euphemism). I have three alarms that I set for every morning, and I still wind up lying in bed for an hour and being late for work, so I do understand why someone might turn to a big gun for help with time management. It’s almost impossible to press snooze on gunpowder.

The muzzle-loaded 12-pounder naval cannon was crafted in 1816 in the U.K. (“Cannon Capital of the World”) and made its way to Vancouver 78 years later as part of a “just because” gift of 16 cannons to the provinces of Canada. If England had just sent us a dozen roses like a normal ruling colonial nation, would we still be together? Historians say: yes.

Two of the cannons that came to the West Coast flanked the Victoria legislature (and were later melted down during the war effort), but the third was more of a free spirit—the Dharma to the other cannons’ Greg, if you will. She hung out for a bit in Nanaimo with coal miners. In Esquimalt, she was caught up in a squabble over the placement of the U.S. border. Finally, she settled down in Stanley Park in 1898, where the Department of Marine and Fisheries used her to designate the end of each fishing day, probably because Apple Watches weren’t invented yet.

Unfortunately, the fishermen, further and further away from shore chasing salmon each day, couldn’t always hear the boom. Meanwhile, though, the Brockton Point lighthouse keeper, William D. Jones—noted drama queen—was blowing up a stick of dynamite every evening to aid ship navigation and mark the stroke of 9 o’clock. Taking over the cannon seemed like a real upgrade, and would slash the local dynamite budget by 100 percent. Win-win!

Since then, it’s been blasting off nightly, unless there’s an international tragedy, like WWII, or UBC engineering students have scampered off with it, as they did in 1969. (When does a prank become property crime? The UBC philosophy department should get on this.) During the early days of COVID, the blast time changed to 7 p.m. in a salute to health-care workers that really puts my banging-a-spoon-on-a-balcony-railing to shame.

Today, while the 9 O’Clock Gun is loaded with a black powder charge daily by the Parks Department, the cannon is launched via electronic trigger. So when it goes off each evening, you can enjoy the sound of Vancouver’s rich history, a confirmation of the time, and a reminder that we have voluntarily weaponized robots, which we will only come to regret as AI develops and we are forced to bow down to our technological overlords. Have a great night! 

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