Time Off the Wrist: the Zytglogge of Bern

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While mankind’s preoccupation with timekeeping is nearly as old as civilization itself, mechanical clockmaking didn’t really come into its own until the late Middle Ages/early-Renaissance. The advent of the first mechanical escapement, the verge escapement, in the mid-1300s allowed timepieces to be separated from a source of running water for continuous power. For the first time, a mechanical clock could be placed anywhere (at least anywhere that could fit a clock tower) and used to bring timekeeping to the public.

At the dawn of the 15th century, much of Europe was divided into small, fiercely competitive city-states. Trade across the continent and beyond was burgeoning, and wealthy regions used this influx of new income to outdo each other however they could. Some, like Florence or Venice, invested huge sums in architecture and the arts, building stunning cathedrals and palaces. Others across Europe, however, put their newfound wealth into the new field of mechanical horology, creating clocks as city centers that stand to this day. In the second installment of Time Off the Wrist, we’re taking a look at one of the greatest examples of these—the Zytglogge in Bern, Switzerland.

Bern astronomical clock.

Once forming part of the western wall of the city, the Zytglogge (“Time Bell” in Swiss-German) of Bern has remained a fixture in the community for eight centuries, even as the urban sprawl enveloped it. First constructed in 1218, the original tower served as a gate and guard post against potential German and Italian invaders for over a century.

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As the city borders continued to move west, the Zytglogge became a second-line guard quarters, and finally in 1344 it was retired from guard duty altogether and repurposed as a women’s prison. The tower then housed thieves, adulterers and “priest’s whores” (women convicted of sleeping with clergy) until a mysterious fire engulfed much of the city in 1405 and nearly burned the entire structure to the ground.

Bern, 1353
Bern, 1638. Shown here are three medieval guard towers, with the Zytglogge on the right.

When the Bern city elders convened to rebuild the tower, there was intense debate over what, exactly, they should build, if anything at all. The Bernese were newly flush with wealth from selling the services of their infamous Swiss pikemen (mercenaries) as condottieri to French and Italian states. As a symbol of the city’s success over the previous two centuries, the Zytglogge was the perfect subject for an architectural statement.

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Zytglogge through the centuries.

Instead of merely making an ornate facade, the final decision was to create an ambitious astronomical clock. The design was cutting-edge at the time, incorporating three faces across the tower: a time-only dial on both the western and eastern sides of the tower, and a complex astronomical register below the time-only face on the east side.

Western clock.
Eastern clock.

There’s also a simple hour chime with a massive gilded bell struck by a golden automaton nicknamed Hans von Thann by the locals. The current iteration of the bell striker was built in the ‘30s, replacing earlier wooden iterations.

The bell striker is not the only automaton. The 1600s saw the addition of a carousel of bears, a jester, a crow, a lion, and a seated Chronos. This cast of characters puts on a performance that begins before the top of every hour and concludes with the bell strikes.

The name of the original builder of this mammoth movement is lost to history; the nearest city records only indicate that the tower was expanded with a new lantern and decorative turrets around the mid-1480s.

However, the next chapter of the Zytglogge’s story is very well documented. The clock tower’s movement broke down in 1527, grinding the iconic symbol of the city to a halt. The man elected to repair the Zytglogge, a local blacksmith by the name of Kaspar Brunner, had no previous experience in horology. Nevertheless, his promise to improve on the original design and his low bid of 1,000 Bernese gulden netted him the job. Over the next three years, Brunner lived up to his promise. The astronomical clock’s movement was completely redesigned, adding several more features and reinforcing parts throughout. The new Brunner movement was so robust that it continues to power the Zytglogge to this day, after 487 years of continuous running without any major breakdowns.

Brunner’s incredible clockwork.

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Despite changes to the outer facade over the centuries, the beating heart of the Zytglogge has remained unchanged since 1530 while sporting a dizzying array of complications. The astronomical dial alone features six: hours, moon phase, weekday, a day/night indicator (also indicating dawn and dusk times throughout the year), Julian calendar, and a classical zodiac indicator.

The famed astronomical clock dial is fashioned after an astrolabe. The clock is backed by a planisphere projected onto a plane depicting three distinct zones: the night sky (in black), dawn (deep blue), and day (light blue). Around the planispehere is a moving metal cutout with the signs of the zodiac, and around that are orbiting sun and moon indicators. This cutout also features the Julian calendar. It does not track leap years, so it has to be manually adjusted each leap year. The 24-hour Roman numeral index trimming the clock is the main time indicator. The clock is a wonderful piece of engineering and art, and because the whole thing is displayed in an ornate combination of red and gold leaf, the tower is brilliantly visible across town.

As impressive as the Zytglogge is, however, 500 miles to the northwest lies an even more fascinating piece. In a future installment of Time Off the Wrist, we’ll take a look at the Prague Orloj in the heart of the Czech Republic.

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Hailing from Redondo Beach, California, Sean’s passion for design and all things mechanical started at birth. Having grown up at race tracks, hot rod shops and car shows, he brings old-school motoring style and a lifestyle bent to his mostly vintage watch collection.

seanpaullorentzen
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  • Scott Dixon

    My ancestor apparently was a horologist and lived in Bern until he died in 1812, according to an old family document. The document says that he worked on the “great clock” but they also mentioned Strassburg. However, I traveled to that city to see the clock, and asked the church to see if they have any record of my ancestor working the clock, but they could not find anything. There are a few minor errors on the family document, so I’m wondering if perhaps he actually worked on the great clock in Bern. I hope to find out something from them. Let me know if you have any thoughts about this (ideas where I can search for records on my ancestor and his work on the great clock.. Thanks!

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