The Clock in the Sky

Visitors to the Strasbourg Cathedral tower may be surprised to confront this immense clock, screened by glass and occupying half the top viewing deck. There has been a clock on the tower’s public platform since 1372 regulating the Cathedral’s powerful bell system, but it is far less celebrated than the astronomical one downstairs, tucked inside the east portal and drawing crowds into the gloom to admire it. In Strasbourg Cathedral the path to the stars paradoxically leads downwards.

The present steeple clock was installed in the tower in 1924 by the Ungerer brothers, who were then at their peak as clock-makers in Strasbourg and the Alsace region. It is the fourth occupant of the deck and only the first to be tuned to Paris time, which was accepted as the national standard in 1891. The clock’s cogs are bronze with cycloid teeth, engineered to ensure minimum friction and with such precision that the machine ran for 76 years without pause. This spring one midday bell was repaired and the clock runs on, maintained weekly by a visiting clock winder.

For more than four hundred years the steeple in Strasbourg was the highest in Europe, soaring to nearly five hundred feet and providing a landmark not only for parts of France and Germany, but Switzerland as well. The clock in the sky was measuring away the minutes while the town at its feet bumped over a historical switchback. As its name suggests, Strasbourg has not always been French. Nestled in the Rhineland on the border of France and Germany, it has been bitterly fought over within living memory. After Bismarck attacked it in 1870 the city metamorphosed from French to German, then back to French at the end of the First World War, before becoming host to Hitler from 1940-1944. The cathedral itself is no stranger to sea-change. Protestantism marched in for thirty years then exited left in the 1580s.

Ungerer is a notable name in Strasbourg, nowadays associated with the cartoonist and writer Tomi Ungerer, but in the last century a byword for clock-making. The family’s connection with the industry began back in 1842, when Albert Ungerer was hired by the master clock-maker Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué on a contract to rebuild the defunct astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral. Thirty specialists worked continuously over fifty one months, constructing what has been called “Schwilgue’s astronomical computer” and Ungerer emerged as Schwilgué’s deputy. On Schwilgué’s death in 1858, he and his brother Theodore established “The Brothers Ungerer, Successors to Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué” , in the old workshop on Rue Brulee, a back street in the centre of town. As the business grew, later generations moved the premises to a factory in Strasbourg’s outskirts at 16 Rue Labroque. Julius and Alfred Ungerer ended the long line of brother-managers in 1972.

When I was preparing this article, one of the Ungerer family told me that in past centuries every town had its monumental clock-maker, but now one would suffice for the whole of Europe. The House of Ungerer lived through this transformation and at their height fulfilled the function of clock-maker to Europe. In 1930 they were commissioned by Italians to build an astronomical clock for the cathedral at Messina, being re-built after an earthquake. The clock was an extravagant affair with a cock that crowed and flapped its wings on the hour, and a lion whose roar ‘filled the town’, according to the “Latest News from Alsace” for 1 November 1930. The crowing cock is the signature piece of the astronomical clock in Strasbourg, but the roaring lion was a novelty invented for the away crowd – mercifully, some Strasbourgeois might think.

In the 1950s, commissions for Ungerer clocks came from ultra-modern enterprises, demonstrating by the power of contrast their commitment to craftsmanship and tradition. The airport at Paris Orly is the gateway for domestic flights to Alsace and its central hall boasts an Ungerer astronomical clock complete with deities, angels and apostles (but tactfully no figure of Death), inaugurated in 1952. Oslo City Hall, a 19-storey modernist box, has an Ungerer clock that was once the largest in the world, with a face twenty-six feet in diameter and hands weighing in at 745 lbs each. Orders for Ungerer clocks also came from Venezuela and Canada.

The sheer monumentalism of the Ungerers’ work carried also the promise of their collapse. The clock at Messina provided the whole factory with continuous work for three years, but commissions like that were few and far between and fashions in clock-making moving in the opposite direction – towards the miniature, the non-mechanical, and the mass-produced. The Ungerers increasingly turned to producing high-precision engineering parts for other industries, but in 1972 the firm failed and was bought up by the city. For thirty years some engineering work was done at the factory, before it was demolished in 2000 to make way for a housing development. Nothing now remains of the site, except a large black Ungerer wall clock, touchingly mounted high on the outside gable of the neighbouring building.

In their time, the Ungerers did more than anyone to preserve the science of astronomical clock-making in western Europe, publishing 10 books in French and in German in the 1920s that explained its underlying concepts and techniques developed for expressing them through the ages. For generations too it was the Ungerers who maintained and mended the cathederal clocks in Strasbourg, and when their firm collapsed local people feared the clocks would stop. Too soon, however. Strasbourg Cathedral’s steeple clock and the astronomical clock in its east portal are nowadays wound every Monday at 10.15am by Mr Alfred Faullimel, a clock master who, like the first Ungerer, comes from a village in north Alsace. He told me he came to clock-making because he was attracted to the intricacy of watches and was horrified at first when his father apprenticed him to the Ungerer brothers, to learn how to make monumental clocks and spend his days hammering and lugging enormous parts around the factory. After 14 years’ apprenticeship though he was converted to the giant art and spoke to me with real emotion about the demolition of 16 Rue Labroque last year.