The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Besançon, Horloge Astronomique

Besançon’s astronomical clock

Besançon is considered the watch making capitol of France. This is by intent. The commune’s formal watchmaking role began shortly after the French Revolution. It was then that the French government decided to create a production center to compete with imports from England and Switzerland. The French government chose Besançon to be their horological center in part because of its location is near the competition: 50 miles to the west of Besançon, just across the border in Switzerland’s Canton of Jura, are famous Swiss watch making towns of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle. La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle are still important watch making centers and are home to some of the world’s most famous watch brands including Rolex, Tag Heurer, Patek Philippe, Tissot, and more.

Despite the French government’s desire, France and Besançon were never really able to compete with Switzerland’s watch making prowess. Besançon, which once employed 20,000 workers making watches, now employs a mere 1,500. As the commune’s watch industry weakened with the advent of digital watches, Besançon’s residents skill at precision work on watches shifted to the burgenening microtechnologies industry. So today instead of making watches the local workers manufacture medical devices and instruments for the defense and aeronautics industries.

Perhaps the commune’s clock making history provided motivation for the creation of the town’s spectacular astronomical clock, located in its own room in the clock tower of the Cathédrale Saint-Jean de Besançon. Europe has numerous astronomical clocks. Besançon’s “horloge astronomique” ranks as one of the best. It’s definitely worth seeing.

An initial version of Besançon’s clock was built in 1857 but it wasn’t until 1863 that the device was satisfactorily functional, at least until the turn of the next century. In 1900 and 1966 the clock stopped working requiring repairs and renovations. Given the complexity of a device with 30,000 mechanical parts 37 years of reliability is impressive.

Besançon’s clock is amazingly complex. It has seventy dials providing 122 indications. There are twenty-one automated figures. The clock shows the Resurrection of Christ at noon and buries Him three hours later. With 365 resurrections a year for 160 years Christ has tirelessly risen in Besançon around 58,000 times.

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The clock also has animated pictures of seven different French harbors and indicates the hours and height of their tides on dials. Though it’s cool, it’s not really very relevant information for a city 300 miles from the ocean. In Besançon knowing the current tidal status is hardly a priority. Planetary motions, signs of the Zodiac, the length of the day, the season, the times for sunrise and sunset, the date of Easter, and the five key days of the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar are all displayed. It is an extraordinary and complicated piece of machinery.

The astronomical clock of course tracks the typical seconds, hours, days and years. Indeed, it is capable of registering up to 10,000 years, including adjustments for leap years and leap centuries. It is this adjustment for leap centuries that a find particularly amazing about Besançon’s astronomical clock. Leap centuries only occur once every 400 years. Indeed the clock has so far only made this adjustment once in history. In 2000 the dial moved for the first time in the clock’s 140-odd years of existence. It should adjust for another leap century until 2400. There’s nothing like planning ahead.

One thought on “The Canal du Rhône au Rhin: Besançon, Horloge Astronomique

  1. Impressive engineering in miniture but I will still stick with the swiss my petek still going strong after thirty years allthough it needs a new strap, my third.

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