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Some of the public clocks of Paris date back to the Middle Ages. Many more were placed in the 19th century, installed in church steeples, government buildings or railway stations. The main function of a public clock was simply to tell passers-by the time. Until the mid-20th century, many Parisians could not afford pocket watches. Today, we read the time on our smartphones, computers, microwaves or in any other electrical devices. Based on the fact that time is displayed everywhere around us, why are the public clocks of Paris still popular?

The public clocks of Paris: a brief history

In the Middle Ages, clocks were fixed on the walls of important government buildings and on the bell tower of churches to help Parisians to regulate their activities during the day and night.

The oldest public clock is still working today: the Conciergerie clock, dating back to the 14th century.

The Conciergerie clock, Paris © French Moments
The Conciergerie clock, Paris © French Moments

I wrote an article dedicated to the Conciergerie clock with a short description.

In the 19th century there were strong parallels between the multiplication of clocks and the rise of the railway and the industrial development. Clocks were placed on many public buildings: town-halls, schools, hospitals and railway stations. At that time, to own a watch was restricted to the very rich who could afford it.

Examples of public clocks of Paris

Here are a few examples of public clocks I have discovered in Paris over the last two years. Listed by arrondissements.

Belfry of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois

Public clocks of Paris
Clock of Church Saint Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois © French Moments

The clock is one of the oldest functional public clocks of Paris. The bell tower was built in 1858 by Théodore Ballu. The neo-Gothic tower connects the old church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois to the Town-Hall of the 1st arrondissement.

Place du Louvre, 1st arrondissement

The clock of the Cour Carrée at the Louvre

Public clocks in Paris
Clock at the Cour Carrée of the Louvre © French Moments

Cour carrée, Louvre, 1st arrondissement

Clock of Réaumur

Public clocks in Paris
Clock Réaumur © French Moments

This impressive clock could well be that of a church. Not at all for it was placed on the neo-Gothic façade of a residential building from 1900.
61-63 rue de Réaumur, 2nd arrondissement

Clock in rue Perrée

Public clocks in Paris
Clock in Rue Perrée © French Moments

A beautiful clock opposite the Square du Temple.

rue Perrée, 3rd arrondissement

Clock of the church of Saint-Louis-en-l’Île

Public clocks of Paris
Clock of Church Saint-Louis-en-l’Île © French Moments

Placed on the unusual steeple, the clock of the church is hanging from an elegant wrought-iron postern. There is a similar feature on the church of Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle in the 2nd arrondissement.

19bis, rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, 4th arrondissement

Clock of Notre-Dame cathedral

Public clocks in Paris
Clock in Notre-Dame Cathedral © French Moments

They are many clocks on Notre-Dame cathedral. Some of them are quite hidden from the street. This one was spotted on my ascent to the towers.

Parvis de Notre-Dame, 4th arrondissement

Dolphins Clock

Public clocks in Paris
Clock of Hôtel Raoul © French Moments

There is not much I could tell you about the history of this unusual and rusty clock. One thing is certain, it is placed on the site of the former Raoul Mansion. The historic house has been dismantled since except for the portal that still stands. The clock was probably made between 1850 and 1880. Two carved wooden dolphins surround the clock face. The clock is topped by a curious protective canopy in zinc.

6 rue Beautreillis, 4th arrondissement

Clock on Rue Mouffetard

Public clocks in Paris
Clock in rue Mouffetard © French Moments

This is a public clock which simply stands on the street.

Rue Mouffetard, 5th arrondissement

Clock of of the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont

Public clocks in Paris
Clock of Saint Etienne du Mont © French Moments

View from rue Clotilde, 5th arrondissement

Clock of Les Invalides

Public clocks in Paris
Clock in the inner courtyard of Les Invalides © French Moments

The beautiful clock is found in the inner courtyard of Les Invalides, just above the statue of Napoleon.

Hôtel des Invalides, 7th arrondissement

Clocks at the Orsay Museum

Public clocks in Paris
Clock at the Orsay Museum © French Moments

The transparent clock face at the Orsay Museum was originally set for the Orsay railway station. Back in 1900 the clock used to dominate the great hall to give all travellers the time.

There is another and superb gilded clock in the great hall.

Public clocks in Paris
Clock at the Orsay Museum © French Moments

Musée d’Orsay, 1 rue de la légion d’honneur, 7th arrondissement

Clock of the Hôtel de Brienne

Public clocks in Paris
Clock at the Hôtel de Brienne © French Moments

The clock tower of the former ministry of defence features an elaborate double clock.

231 boulevard Saint-Germain, 7th arrondissement

Clock of the National Assembly

Public clocks in Paris
Clock of the National Assembly © French Moments

The clock was placed above the porch.

Place de l’Assemblée nationale, 7th arrondissement

Clocks in the Cour du Havre

Public clocks in Paris
Clock in front of Gare Saint Lazare © French Moments

This is probably the most curious clock in all Paris! Named ‘L’heure de tous’, this sculpture by Arman consists of a stack of clocks. Each one of them shows a different time!

Cour du Havre, 8th arrondissement

Clock of Gare du Nord

Public clocks in Paris
Clock of Gare du Nord © French Moments

The clock is placed on the front façade of the Gare du Nord.

Gare du Nord, 10th arrondissement

Clock of Gare de l’Est

Public clocks in Paris
Clock of Gare de l’Est © French Moments

The clock is placed on the front façade of the Gare de l’Est and is surrounded by allegorical statues.

Gare de l’Est, 10th arrondissement

Clock tower of Gare de Lyon

Public clocks of Paris
Clock at Gare de Lyon © French Moments

The elegant clock tower of Gare de Lyon is 67 metre tall. The belfry contains four elaborate clock faces. In the 19th century there was a time difference between the cities of France. Each towns had their own times which was calculated in relation to the position of the sun in the sky at midday. This is called local solar time. Between Strasbourg and Brest, there was a time difference of 50 minutes! With the development of the railways, it became essential to find a solution to unify time. It became rapidly complicated to manage the railway timetables across France. In 1891 all towns and villages in the country were set on the Paris time.

When the clock-tower of Gare de Lyon was built in 1900, its gigantic clocks showed the Paris time zone that was applied everywhere in Metropolitan France.

The mechanism of the clock is still perfectly reliable as it is synchronised with the time signal of France Inter.

Gare de Lyon, 12th arrondissement

The popular public clocks of Paris

After seeing all these beautiful examples, it seems pretty obvious that the public clocks of Paris have become witnesses of times long since past. But as for church bells, the public clocks of Paris are part of the historic heritage of the city. Let’s hope they will be functional for many times to come.

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About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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