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Everything Under the Sun



A scientific understanding of the sun.
Jean-Antoine Lépine and Joseph Coteau (both French), Astronomical mantel timepiece, about 1789, marble and gilt bronze
zoom Jean-Antoine Lépine and Joseph Coteau (both French), Astronomical mantel timepiece, about 1789, marble and gilt bronze

 

The 18th century was an exciting time for European clockmakers. The ideas of the mathematician Isaac Newton had recently revolutionized astronomy and navigation. Both those fields required devices that could measure time with ever greater precision.

Jean-Antoine Lépine (lay-PEEN), clockmaker to the king of France, was among the most inventive clockmakers of the time. This clock tracks the course of the earth around the sun in several ways. The central face tells the time in Paris. Twelve smaller dials give the time in cities around the world, including Boston and Beijing. On the left, another face shows the position of the sun in relation to the stars. A face on the right tells the time of sunrise and sunset each day.

The clock’s inner workings were scientifically up-to-the-minute. But its decoration reflects a fascination with the world of the ancient Greeks. Early Greeks believed the sun moving across the sky was the god Helios, driving his chariot. The poet Homer described Helios (also known later as Apollo) as flashing bright rays, wearing a gold helmet, and driving a golden-reined chariot pulled by powerful horses. On one of the clockfaces, the god appears in his chariot, soaring high over the globe of the earth. At the top of the clock case, his head appears in the center of a sunburst made of bronze metal covered with thin sheets of gold. Circles of golden laurel leaves, another symbol of Apollo, add to the dazzling effect, making this clock shine like the Greek sun god himself.


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1. The clock’s central face shows the time in twelve cities around the globe.
2. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo drives the chariot of the sun across the sky. One of the clockfaces illustrates this.
3. The face of the Greek god Apollo appears in a sunburst at the top of the clock case.

 

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May 2005