April 1872: Auguste Vérité’s astronomical clock gets a mixed reception

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Our predecessors were not uniformly impressed with what is now recognised as one of the 19th century’s horological triumphs

In 1872 our predecessors published a lengthy article from an unknown contributor who had put considerable effort into describing a triumph of 19th century horology.

The timepiece – Auguste Vérité’s astronomical clock – contains 90,000 components, including 68 clockwork automatons, and its numerous faces indicate time, tides and the movement of stars.

Needless to say, the editors at The Engineer were not wholly impressed. They understood that the 39ft-4.5in-tall timepiece was worthy of merit from a mechanical viewpoint but they doubted whether such a clock warranted the time and effort invested into bringing it to life.

 Auguste Vérité’s astronomical clock
Auguste Vérité’s astronomical clock (detail)

Unlike our predecessors, the astronomical clock lives on in Beauvais Cathedral, France, where it has been keeping time since being installed there in 1873.

Originally unveiled at the Palais de l’Industrie in Paris in 1869, the astronomical clock – described by the contributor as “an exquisite work of mechanism and art” – was built between 1865 and 1868.

Severe Roman style

Our contributor noted that the clock – 16ft 9.5in wide and 9ft 3.5in deep – was “conceived in the severe style of the Roman epoch, but in its decorations all the riches of Byzantine ornamentation have been exhausted”.

“It is composed of two very distinct parts; the first is altogether architectural, the second especially symbolical. The base is a long square and forms the ground plan of the case; and from this base rise solid pedestals which support four groups of five columns, on which rest the springings of a triple retreating  archivolt, so that the case presents a porch on all its faces, having a depth of more than a metre, with an admirable perspective effect.

“On the side faces the concentric archivolts show a triple semicircular arch, which, with its three columns, enshrines a bay of unique character. On the front and back faces the two archivolts which are on  the first plane form a large trilobed arcade, the top of which is 26ft 3in from the ground.”


The overall description of the clock’s case ends with a flourish, noting: “On the grand front façade, at the highest summit, in the midst of a great glory peopled with angels, appears our Lord, seated upon a rainbow; a simple cloud separates Him from Time.”

While the frame of the clock bathes in divine glory, it is the workings within that bring them to life. According to the Haute Horlogerie Fondation, Auguste Vérité was a self-taught watchmaker who promoted the synchronisation of clocks using electromagnetic signals.

Exquisite detail

His first astronomical clock was built for Château de Frocourt, near Beauvais, and the clock for Beauvais Cathedral was no less complex, particularly in relation to the operation of the 12 dials that represent the 15-year cycle of Roman indiction. Visitors to The Engineer’s website will be able to read in exquisite detail how Vérité accounted for each of the clock’s functions and the movement of automatons, which our contributor described more economically.

“Scarcely has the last stroke of the hour sounded than the motor No.13 raises the hand of Christ, who by a sign of the head gives his angels the order to announce his judgement.

“At this moment the motors No.9, 11, 12, and 14 give or give back again the movement in turns or simultaneously by twos or threes, and the whole scene of the last judgement is accomplished.

“Over the principal motor may be seen an electrical commutator. This commutator would enable [Vérité] to keep mathematically to the rate of his regulator all the clocks of Beauvais.

“We think our readers will agree with us that the clock, thus graphically described with all the energy of a Frenchman, really deserves to be regarded as one of the most remarkable specimens of horology in the world,” concluded The Engineer. “Whether it does or does not present an enormous amount of misdirected ingenuity as well, our readers must decide according to their individual proclivities.”