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World's oldest clock? Mais, non.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg has housed three clocks since medieval times, the first dating from around 1352. That was eight years later than the one in Padua but Padua only survived for about fifty years.

Known as the Three Kings clock ("Dreikonigsuhr"), it is surmounted by s gilded copper, iron and wood rooster that spread its wings and opened its beak to reveal an animated tongue, and it sang every hour through bellows and a reed (like a cuckoo clock). The rooster depicted the passion of Christ and at noon the Three Kings above the calendar and astrolabe dials bowed to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child while a carillon of bells rang out. Its maker is not known.

You will note the use of the past tense - the clock, which stood nearly 60 foot tall but stopped working in the 16C, was replaced by a second clock on the opposite wall, started in 1547, so it cannot claim to be the World's oldest clock.

The designer of the second clock was Christian Herlin, a mathematician, but he never saw it finished; politics and religion (the Cathedral became Catholic) stopped construction until 1571 when Herlin's student, Conrad Dasypodius, commissioned Isaac and Josia Habrecht to complete it. He also appointed a musician and artists to assist.

The old clock was dismantled in 1572, but the rooster was used in this second clock, which was finished in 1574. Sadly, the rooster met its Maker in 1640 when it was struck by lightning but until that day, it sat atop the cupola and sang to the gathered masses every day at noon.

This second clock was both stunning visually and complex of mechanical design with many decorative painted religious panels, statues, automata and dials for the calendar, the astrolabe, the movement of the planets, sun and moon eclipses. A three-foot orrery sat at the bottom and the carillon could play six different melodies. But it stopped in 1788 and lay silent and motionless for the next fifty years despite constant offers from the young Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué to repair it.

Eventually, in 1838 Schwilgué was asked to build a third clock and the old clock movement now stands in the Strasbourg Museum of Decorative Arts. It took Schwilgué and his carefully selected and trained team of workers some five years to complete. When it was unveiled on 31 December 1842, the celestial globe was still not quite finished.

Again almost 60 foot tall, the current clock is one of the largest in the world, and one of the most complex. It shows the official time, the solar time, the day, week month and year, the zodiacal signs, the moon phase, and the position of the planets.

But it also calculates leap years, equinoxes, and even Easter under the complicated Gregorian rule (that Easter follows the 14th day of the moon that falls on or immediately after 21 March).

There is again an abundance of automata including the two Angels who ring a bell and tip the sands of time, and characters representing the ages of man presenting themselves before Death.

The story goes that the clockmaker was blinded when it was finished, so that he could not create another clock of such complexity and beauty for a different city, a story that seems to attach to almost every public clock in Europe!

Click here to read more about the next clock in this series of articles, the SALISBURY CATHEDRAL clock.


  • The present clock now at Strasbourg
  • The previous clock at Strasbourg
  • Strasbourg Catherdral's clock dial
  • The 1843 orrery at Strasbourg
  • The Comput Ecclesiastique