St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 3/Curious Clocks

St. Nicholas, Volume 40, Number 3
Curious Clocks by Charles A. Brassier




Many of the German cities of the Middle Ages enjoyed great prosperity, which they liked to exhibit in the form of splendid churches and other public buildings; and each one tried to excel the others. When, therefore, in the year 1352, Strassburg was the first to erect a great cathedral clock, which not only showed the hour to hundreds of observers, but whose strokes proclaimed it far and near, there was a rivalry among the rich cities as to which should set up within its walls the most beautiful specimen of this kind.

The citizens of Nuremberg, who were renowned all over the European world for their skill, were particularly jealous of Strassburg’s precedence over them.

In 1356, when the Imperial Council, or Reichstag, held in Nuremberg, issued the Golden Bull, an edict or so-called “imperial constitution” which promised to be of greatest importance to the welfare of the kingdom, a locksmith, whose name is unfortunately not recorded, took this as his idea for the decoration of a clock which was set up in the Frauenkirche in the year 1361. The emperor, Charles 1V, was represented, seated upon a throne; at the stroke of twelve, the seven Electors, large moving figures, passed and bowed before him to the sound of trumpets.

This work of art made a great sensation.

Other European cities, naturally, desired to have similar sights, and large public clocks were therefore erected in Breslau in 1368, in Rouen in 1389, in Metz in 1391, in Speyer in 1395, in Augsburg in 1398, in Lübeck in 1405, in Magde-burg in 1425, in Padua in 1430, in Dantzic in 1470, in Prague in 1490, in Venice in 1495, and in Lyons in 1508.

Not all, of course, were as artistic as that of Nuremberg; but no town now contented itself with a simple clockwork to tell the hours. Some had a stroke for the hours, and some had chimes; the one showed single characteristic moving figures, while others were provided with great astronomical works, showing the day of the week, month, and year, the phases of the moon, the course of the planets, and the signs of the zodiac.

On the town clock of Compiègne, which was built in 1405, three figures of soldiers, or “jaquemarts,” so-called (in England they are called “Jacks”), struck the hour upon three bells under their feet; and they are doing it still. The great clock of Dijon has a man and a woman sitting upon an iron framework which supports the bell upon which they strike the hours. In 1714 the figure of a child was added, to strike the quarters. The most popular of the mechanical figures was the cock, flapping his wings and crowing.

The clock on the Aschersleben Rathaus shows, besides the phases of the moon, two pugnacious goats, which butt each other at each stroke of the hour; also the wretched Tantalus, who at each stroke opens his mouth and tries to seize a golden apple which floats down; but in the same moment it is carried away again. On the Rathaus clock in Jena is also a representation of Tantalus, opening his mouth as in Aschersleben; but here the apple is not present, and the convulsive efforts of the figure to open the jaws wide become ludicrous.

One of the first clocks with which important astronomical works were connected is that of the Marienkirche in Lübeck, now restored. Below, at the height of a man’s head, is the plate which shows the day of the week, month, etc.; these calculations are so reliable that the extra day of leap-year is pushed in automatically every four years. The plate is more than three meters in diameter. Above it is the dial, almost as large. The numbers from 1 to 12 are repeated, so that the hour-hand goes around the dial only once in twenty-four hours. In the wide space between the axis which carries the hand and the band where the hours are marked, the fixed stars and the course of the planets are represented. The heavens are here shown as they appear to an observer in Lübeck. In the old works the movement of the planets was given incorrectly, for they all were shown as completing a revolution around the sun in 360 days. Of course this is absurd. Mercury, for example, revolves once around the sun in eighty-eight days, while Saturn requires twenty-nine years and 166 days for one revolution. When this astronomical clock was repaired, some years ago, a very complicated system of wheels had to be devised to reproduce accurately the great difference in the movement of the planets. The work consumed two years. There are a great number of moving figures on the Lübeck clock, but they are not of the most conspicuous interest. In spite of this, however, they excite more wonder among the crowds of tourists who are always present when the clock strikes twelve than the really remarkable and admirable astronomical and calendar works.

The Strassburg clock has, more than all others, an actually world-wide fame; and no traveler who visits the beautiful old-city fails to see the curious and interesting spectacle which it offers daily at noontime. To quote from one such visitor: “Long before the clock strikes twelve,a crowd has assembled in the high-arched portico of the stately cathedral, to be sure of not missing the right moment. Men and women of both high and low degree, strangers and townspeople alike,

await in suspense the arrival of the twelfth hour. The moment approaches, and there is breathless silence. An angel lifts a scepter and strikes four times upon a bell; another turns over an hour-glass which he holds in the hand. A story higher, an old man is seen to issue from a space decorated in Gothic style; he strikes four times with his crutch upon a bell, and disappears at the other side, while the figure of Death lets the bone in its hand fall slowly and solemnly, twelve times, upon the hour-bell. In still another story of the clock, the Saviour sits enthroned, bearing in the left hand a banner of victory, the right hand raised in benediction. As soon as the last stroke of the hour has died away, the apostles appear from an opening at the right hand of the Master. One by one they turn and bow before Him, departing at the other side. Christ lifts His hand in blessing to each apostle in turn, and when the last has disappeared, He blesses the assembled multitude. A cock on a side tower flaps his wings and crows three times. A murmur passes through the crowd, and it disperses, filled with



wonder and admiration at the spectacle it has witnessed.”

In 1574, the Strassburg astronomical clock replaced the older one. It was mainly the work of Dasypodius, a famous mathematician, and it ran until 1789. Later, the celebrated clock-maker, Johann Baptist Schwilgué (born December 18, 1772), determined to repair it. After endless negotiations with the church authorities, he obtained the contract, and on October 2, 1842, the clock, as made over, was solemnly reconsecrated.

Copyright by Underwood & Underwood.

In very recent days, the clock of the City Hall in Olmütz, also renovated, has become a rival to that of the Strassburg Cathedral. In the year 1560, it was described by a traveler as a true marvel, together with the Strassburg clock and that of the Marienkirche in Dantzic. But as the years passed, it was most inconceivably neglected, and everything movable and portable about it was carried off. Now, after repairs which have been almost the same as constructing it anew, it works almost faultlessly. In the lower part of the clock is the calendar, with the day of the year, month, and week, and the phases of the moon, together with the astronomical plate; a story higher, a large number of figures move around a group of angels, and here is also a good portrait of the Empress Maria Theresa. Still higher is an arrangement of symbolical figures and decorations, which worthily crowns the whole. A youth and a man, above at the left, announce the hours and quarters by blows of a hammer. The other figures go through their motions at noonday. Scarcely have the blows of the man’s hammer ceased to sound, when a shepherd boy, in another wing of the clock, begins to play a tune; he has six different pieces, which can be alternated. As soon as he has finished, the chimes, sixteen bells, begin, and the figures of St. George, of Rudolph of Hapsburg, with a priest, and of Adam and Eve, appear in the left center. When they have disappeared, the chimes ring their second melody, and the figures of the right center appear,—the three Kings of the East, before the enthroned Virgin, and the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt. When the bells ring for the third time, all the figures show them- selves once more.

Clocks operated by electricity are, of course, the product of recent times.

England’s largest electric clock was, as our illustration shows, recently christened in a novel manner. The makers, Messrs. Gent & Co., of Leicester, entertained about seventy persons at luncheon on this occasion, using one of the four mammoth dials as a dining-table, a “time table,” as the guests facetiously styled it.

The clock was installed, 220 feet above the ground, in the tower of the Royal Liverpool Society’s new building, in Liverpool. Each of the four dials, which weigh fifteen tons together, measure twenty-five feet in diameter, with a minute-hand fourteen feet long. The hands are actuated electrically by a master clock connected with the Greenwich Observatory. After dark, they are illuminated by electricity, and are visible at a great distance.

Still larger are the dials of the great electric

clock, situated 346 feet high, in the tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, on Madison Square, New York City. They measure twenty-six and one half feet in diameter. The minute-hand is seventeen feet from end to end, and twelve feet from center to point, while the hour-hand measures thirteen feet four inches in all, and eight feet four inches from the center of the dial outward. These immense hands are of iron framework, sheathed in copper, and weigh 1000 and 700 pounds respectively.

The big clock and the ninety-nine other clocks in the building are regulated from a master clock in the Director’s Room, on the second floor, which sends out minute impulses, and is adjusted to run within five seconds per month.

At night, the dial, hands, and numerals are beautifully illuminated, of which we present a picture, the enlarged minute-hand showing the length of exposure. The time is also flashed all night in a novel manner from the great gilded “lantern” at the apex of the tower, 696 feet above the pavement. The quarter-hours are announced from each of the four faces of the lantern by a single red light, the halves by two red flashes, the three quarters by three flashes. On the hour, the white arc-lights are ‘extinguished temporarily, and white flashes show the number of the hour.

This takes the place of the bells operated in the daytime. They are in four tones, G (1500 pounds), F (2000 pounds), E flat (3000 pounds), and B flat (7000 pounds), and each quarter-hour ring out the “Westminster Chimes,” in successive bars. These are the highest chimes in the world, being situated on the forty-second floor, 615 feet above the street level; and they attract much attention from visitors.