The Immortal Clockmaker



Hello and welcome back to Paname a podcast that turns back time  to explore the unusual history of Paris. Come with me as we delve into the urban legend of the immortal clockmaker.

Urban legend has it that sometime around 1465 at no. 10 Rue Grand Degres, or sometimes at  no. 10 rue Maitre Albert both in the 5th arrt an exceptional clockmaker once lived and worked. You might remember rue Maitre albert so named after the great philosopher who once lived here and who allegedly was an alchemist looking for the philosopher's stone - the ability to turn base metals into gold and find the secret to eternal life. Albert’s neighbour however had a different method.   This enigmatic and mysterious clockmaker described as coming from somewhere in the ’orient’, possibly Egypt had apparently fled his home, changed his religion and his name. He now went by ‘Oswald Biber’ which was an eminently suitable name as Biber means beaver as does Bieve which is the name of the street just by his shop, named after the river that once ran along this very street and into the seine. Today the river has been paved over so there is no river to be seen but by all accounts this was just as well as it was polluted and filthy.  The story of the river It is quite an interesting though so one day I’m sure i’ll cover it in an episode. But back to Oswald Biber. Now although Monsieur Biber owned his shop for many years, never seemed to age, and even though his small shop was situated in a rather less than salubrious neighbourhood his fine workmanship quickly attracted wealthy clients, after all in the 15th century only the wealthy could really afford a clock of their own. In Paris most people relied on sundials of which there are many, but Paris not being the sunniest of places people would more often listen out for the church bells to tell the time. The bells or  ‘cloche’ as they are called in French would ring on the hour.


There was also, we know at least one clock for  Parisians which can still be seen in its original location, if not form. It it is considered Paris’ oldest surviving clock and was built in 1371 and is situated on the ile de la cite on the clock tower of the Conciergerie. Originally the conciergerie was a royal palace but was converted into a prison in the fifteenth century. It was here that Marie-Antoinette, along with many others, were held during the revolution before their execution, the cell can be visited to this day.


King Charles V, the king who extended the walls around Paris and was known as the wise ordered the clock to be made for the Parisians. However the beautiful gilded clock you can see today looks remarkably different to that original 14th Century one. A couple of hundred years after later it was modernised. In the 16th Century much building was going on and the renaissance was taking hold.  Two sculptures were added to each side of the clock: One represents Justice and the other Law which to be fair is pretty suitable considering that this is where the law courts and prisons can be found. A few hundred years later in 1849 another restoration was undertaken because of damage done to it during the Revolution. The two sculptures had been ripped down and so had to be replaced. It was also during this restoration that the timekeeping mechanism was updated and, amazingly this is the one which still keeps time today after 164 years.



So this was perhaps the only clock Parisians were using in the 14th Century. No one would have had a wristwatch as the technology for them did not appear until the 16th century and even portable clocks were not about till the 15th Century. So let us return to our little shop in the 5th just meters away from Notre Dame.  The beautiful and unusual timepieces that Monsieur Beiber made had one peculiarity their hands went anticlockwise instead of clockwise. In other words they turned backwards and in doing so they turned back time for whoever owned the clock and had their name engraved upon it. Not noticeable at first but slowly it was remarked upon that Monsieur Biber’s clients seemed all to be in very good form, indeed they seemed if anything to be getting younger as time went by, while their friends and peers aged, grew old and even died.  

As you can imagine the wealthy few who had bought a clock were over the moon to see themselves regenerate and get younger outliving friends and foes alike, finding renewed pleasure in activities they had once been too old to enjoy. But slowly realisation dawned on them, if they continued to get younger  what would become of them? Would they become a baby and what then? And it was all very well being 20 but how do you manage a business if you are a child? Finding a wife may be one thing when you are a young man but a teenager? Really no one wants to be a teenager twice. And so one day these select few went to see the clockmaker and ask that he stop their clocks.  But alas, he said, it was impossible, he could not. Since, by rights most of them should have been dead long ago if he stopped their clock they would instantly return to the stage the should be at - in other words dead. How then, they asked, is it possible that you seem neither to age nor get any younger? Ah he explained that is because his clock was different to theirs: one day the hands move forward and the next day back. You see, he explained,  when I was learning my trade I went to Venice, and there I met a certain wise old clockmaker who had a clock just like mine, with his name engraved upon it, and he made one for me, but just as he was about to teach me the secrets of how it worked troubles arose between the Jews and Christians and I was forced to flee. So I never learned his secret. The old men grew angry and demanded that he do something but nothing could be done so the left and went home to ponder their future. All as it happened came to the same conclusion and all made the same resolve: to sneak back into the house and steal the clockmakers clock that went both forward and backwards, erase his name and replace it with their own. Imagine their surprise then when that night upon breaking in to the clockmaker's shop they found the others already there! An argument broke and then a fight, a group of old, old men in the bodies of young men desperate to live forever shouted, threw punches, kicked and bit each other. And, it being only a tiny shop, they smashed and crashed about, knocking instruments and tools to the floor and breaking merchandise, including the precious clock they had all wanted so much. In an instant they all turned to dust, including M Biber, because as it turned out his clock effected all the others and with that one broken none of them would work. A good story. I feel like i have heard it before or versions of it. But a great yarn nonetheless. Anyway over the years other enigmatic strangers from far flung places have also set up shop at no 10. And just like M Biber seemed to stay unchanged for an unnaturally long time, sadly there is not clockmaker to be found there today but even if there were would you be tempted? What would it be like to live forever? Time and our lack there of it is what makes living so special. Carpe diem, yolo and all that.

That is why the search for immortality fascinates us and  it crops up again and again in divers forms in stories and legends; whether it be immortal vampires who must drink the blood of the living to stay alive or characters such as  Dorian Grey he who made the terrible bargain and as a result must keep a portrait of himself in his attic which slowly ages and decayes while he stays youthful and fresh. But at the heart of these stories there is the dilemma as to whether anyone would really want to be immortal? There is a sense that living forever would be rather awful or the price one would have to pay for immortality would be too high.  How do you watch your friends age and die? Also immortality really takes the zing out of life rendering it boring or without excitement. Is there any rush to experience something if you can do it next year, or the year after or 100 years later? People are notorious for not doing things that they can do at any time. How many of you listening have never visited something in your own town or country because you can go anytime - but still havent.  Would immortality, like for Dorian leave you jaded and blase about life. The Japanese have a concept which is often translated into “the pathos of things” the fact that experiences, even beautiful or exciting are tinged with sadness as they will not last but that does not take from the experience but rather adds to it making it all the more intense or sweet as we know it will end. Apparently on their deathbeds it is said people regret most not spending their time wisely rather than their money.  



And nobody was more aware of this than sundial makers. As sundials often have brilliant mottos written upon them. There is a wikipedia page with whole lists of mottos, i’ll put a link to it for you,  some are lighthearted, ‘ i count only sunny hours’ some more sinister Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat. All hours wound; the last one kills, lots are about not wasting time, Use the hours, don't count them sort of thing. I like a sundial, they are often beautiful although I personally cannot really tell the time from them. Strangely there are loads  in Paris over 100 and at least one book dedicated solely to them. The problem with a sundial is that the  sun is not always out and when it is out other buildings render them useless by plunging them into shade and of course  they are completely useless at night. However, I  have discovered from my research that because of this most sundials are either morning or afternoon dials. Of Paris many dials there are a few good mottos.  In the courtyard of the sorbonne the sundial tells us ‘Sicut Umbra Dies Nostri Our Days Pass Like a Shadow’, in the Institut de France, ‘Horat tuas quia breves immortalibus operibus vove: Since your hours are short, it is to immortal works that you must devote them’, which is surely a nod to the so called ‘immortals’ who work in the academie francaise.  in the 6th a sundial proclaims that ‘ Omnia sol temperat the sun governs all’ while in the Marais the convent of merci tells us to ‘UTERE DUM LYCEAT enjoy life while it's possible’ . some are more lighthearted such as the blue cockerel in the 18th ‘Quand tu sonneras, je chanteray'' -- ''When you ring, I sing, - the cockerel being a sort of time keeper himself. My favourite is perhaps the  sundial on the ile de la cite. at the Palais de Justice a sculpture of Time with his scythe and Justice with her sword and scales proclaims Hora Fugit Stat Jus The Hour Flees; Justice Stays. Very apt indeed.

Of the many sundials some are tiny or obscure and some are huge, like the one to be found in the Jardin Emile-Gallé in the 11th. This modern sundial built in 1986 is one of the largest in Europe, several meters long it is placed in a semicircle of 18 meters and surrounded by abstract sculptures representing different hours. In fact you can find at least one sundial in every arrondissement of Paris except the 17th.  If you haven’t listened to my episode about the Obelisk then go back and have a listen but the obelisk is by far the largest and by far the oldest sundial in Paris. In Egypt obelisks were used to tell the time, but they have a lot more sun so they were probably a good deal more useful.


There are too many sundials in Paris to go through them all of course but let’s finish with one of the more famous, if overlooked ones. At number 27  rue saint Jacques you can find a sundial in the shape of a scallop shell with a human like face. It is rarely in the sunshine but this would not matter as it does not work but this is not surprising considering who made it, an artist famous for melting time. Salvador Dali. Dali seems to find time abstract or changeable and in a way he is right. What is time really? Twice a year we think nothing of changing the clocks, for no good reason as far as i’m concerned and we are all ok with that.

People have been keen to plot time for thousands of years; there are all types of clocks from all around the world: sundials, candle clocks, incense clocks, hourglasses, water clocks, star clocks - the astrolabe but why? Why do we need to know the time? And how accurate does that time have to be? In the past it was useful for farmers to know how much sunlight they had, or by keeping track of time of the year,  know when to bring in crops. Other than farmers time is often important for religious reasons. You need to know the time to call people to prayer or for specific religious events. The need for a clock and more accurate timekeeping only really becomes essential in urban environments. Time becomes more precise and more integral to the smooth running of day to day life. You need to monitor the time arrive at work, especially if you are paying them, how many hours someone has worked in order to pay them, time deliveries, meetings, the time that  shops must open or close, when taxes are to be paid etc, etc. But for a long time time was a more or less science based on the sun or the stars. Now noon, midday, according to the sun is not universal but depends where you are and this can change from town to town. So 12 noon in Paris is not exactly the same time as 12 noon in Lyon. that is ok as long as everyone in Paris or Lyon are happy - shops will open, people will be paid etc without any problems. The invention of the railways however, saw the need for standard time across the country. It was no longer possible for it to be one time in Paris and another in Lyon. The whole country needed to share the same time and, luckily,  there was a system which was already in place and had been used for years by the Navy.



You see In order for ships to  sail around the world and conquer or discover or whatever they need to navigate accurately.  The ability to determine the exact position at sea means that ships could travel more directly, speedily and safely to their destinations. How did they do this? Through the tracking of longitude. I understand in principle what they are getting at but I must admit i do find this pretty confusing but stick with me. Galileo first realised, with the help of his new fangled equipement the telescope that the moons of Jupiter are visible and can be seen at the same time from different points on Earth. He  quickly realized that this was a potential means of finding longitude. In other words if you are looking up at Jupiter’s moons you would not see them at the same time if you were say in Paris or Bangkok but you would see them at the same time if you were in alignment with Paris, above or below - along the line of longitude so to speak.


It was quite a bit later however, before Longitude was finally established. The meridian is called the zero point - zero longitude. When the sun is directly over the meridian it is 12 noon. And be you in Paris or Lyon or in the middle of the mediterranean you can somehow work out time and distance using this system. The navy gractiouls let the  landlubbers borrow that same system to use for the railways. Hurrah time confusion solved… or nearly.

Today we refer to  Greenwich mean time or GMT. it is still still widely used as the standard time against which all the other time zones in the world are referenced. Paris is GMT +1. Greenwich, in case you do not know is in London. Britain of course is a great seafaring nation. But not the only one - for a long time Paris had their own Meridian running through Paris of course and they considered it to be point zero and london to be Paris Mean time -1. So who was right?

The 1884 International Meridian Conference decided that the meridian line running through Greenwich, rather than that running through Paris would become the prime line. A blow for the French who refused to accept this for ages.  But ultimately they were forced to reluctantly accept London as Longitude 0°. But the Paris meridian is not forgotten. Astronomer François Arago was the man who plotted the French Meridian and in 1994 the city of Paris commissioned a Dutch conceptual artist, Jan Dibbets, to create a memorial to him. Dibbets came up with the idea of setting 135 bronze medallions into the ground along the Paris meridian. Sadly a number have been stolen but you can still walk across Paris from North to south following these discreet disks you will recognise them as the word  ARAGO with N and S pointers is engraved on them. You can find maps on the internet , i’ll post some on my website.



Where shall we go next? Lets now go from one Meridian to another and one that has caused quite a stir following the publication of Dan Brown’s novel the Da Vinci code. Within the huge church of Saint Sulpice you will find a gnomon, this is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, the word comes from the greek meaning one that knows or examines. In Saint Sulpice the gnomon is built around a meridiana line which is strictly oriented along the north-south axis, it is represented by a brass line set in a strip of white marble on the floor of the church. This is not the Paris Meridian plotting longitude but rather a means of accurately calculating that the summer solstice and by doing so to accurately calculate the correct date for Easter. Easter  is a religious holiday that changes every year according Easter Sunday celebrates the Christian belief of Jesus Christ's resurrection.


Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox


The death of Jesus occurred around the Jewish Passover, which is traditionally held on first full moon following the vernal equinox. As the full moon can vary in each time zone, the Church said that they would use the 14th day of the lunar month instead – the Paschal Full Moon – and host Easter Day on the following Sunday. Once the date of the moon is known, Easter Day and the Easter holidays can be determined.

A small opening on the south window essential turned the church into a solar observatories The sun would shine through the small window and would mark the passage of the solar year: summer solstice to winter, autumn equinox to spring. But more than marking time it also saved the church from the fierce revolutionaries. Following the Revolution churches were damaged and destroyed but two pharmacists in the parish intercede on behalf of the church convincing them that it was a place of science and reason and although it was of course looted in was perhaps somewhat saved. Today, faintly  Above the main entrance to the church, you can still just about make out the engraving “Le peuple françois reconnoit l’Etre Suprême et l’immortalité de l’âme” meaning that the French people acknowledge the Supreme Being and the immortal soul.
The revolutionaries did not just mess with churches and religion but with time itself. Above Paris oldest clock  back on the ile de la cite a latin inscription read This mechanism which divides time into perfectly equal twelve hours helps you to protect justice and defend the law. But who decided that there should be twelve hours in a day? The revolutionaries took time out from chopping off head to remodel time itself. They wanted everything to be different and a new epoch needs a new clock.  

If you head to the musee carnavalet you would see a clock a decimal clock. ‘Decimal time’ as it was called, divided the day into 10 decimal hours, each hour into 100 minutes and each minute into 100 seconds, instead of  24 hours of 60 minutes each of 60 seconds.


In other words the day was now ten hours long. This meant that  each hour was 144 old minutes. The decimal hour was then divided into 100 minutes, each 86.4 seconds long etc, etc.  Sound complicated? Well it was.

Which is probably why it lasted just 17 months. The  system was not popular. It did not seem practical or an easy change for people to make - the metric system, which the revolution also introduced standardised weights and measures worked fine. It was practical, it took getting used to but  we don’t really need to know exactly how long something is or how much it weighs exactly very often, just when you bake a cake or buy something from Ikea. But we do need to know the time - all of the time. It’s much more important for a our daily lives.  Radically changing the time was just too harder to get used to. But it did not stop there. The decimal time change was also complemented by the Revolutionary Calendar, which introduced ten day weeks this meant that in a 10 day week you work 9 days before having a day off.  I can’t help thinking that this was part of the reason that the decimal time was doomed to failure in France. You can mess with a lot in France but days off are sacred here. France is surely the only secular country that celebrates all the catholic holidays. So in 1806, nobody complained when Napoleon brought back the old calendar and the revolutionary quietly disparered.

Lets draw this podcast to a close with a discovery I have just made and find both deligtful and a little sad. In a rather dull neighbourhood no far from the pompidou centre there is a palce called the ‘quariter des horologues’ the clock district so called because of the most unusual clock you will find in Paris. It is a pretty giant peice called the defender of time which was created by the French artist Jacques Monestier in 1979. I’ll put a link to some of his otherworks as well as this and i througogly recomeed you check them out he has made some exclelent peices. He specialises in automation. The defender of time shows a man standing on a large sort of rock sword in hand  fighitng off either a dragon, rooster, or crab on the hour, except three times of day when he’s attacked by all three. The animals represent the ground, the sky, and the sea, respectively. During these attacks sound effects of earth moving, wind or waves could be heard. Luckily the man always won.

Sadly however the clock  has not been working since July 1, 2003 it is - like some terribl metaphore. still really beautiful and I do hope they find some money to repair it.