Vive la révolution!

The French Revolution also reinvented how time was measured: now the day was divided into ten hours, an hour into 100 minutes. Time for new clocks and watches.

The Lion Monument in Lucerne commemorates the historic storming of the Palais des Tuileries: on 10 August 1792, some 40,000 insurgents forced their way into the royal city palace in Paris to the strains of the Marseillaise. Louis XVI, however, had already fled to the National Assembly early that morning, protected by 150 Swiss Guards and their commander, Karl Josef von Bachmann. The remaining 750 guardsmen put up a fierce fight – in vain. The attack went down in the history books as a massacre: thousands of the intruders were killed. And any Swiss Guards that did not die were later sentenced by the Revolutionary Court to death by guillotine.

The storming of the Tuileries marked a climax of the French Revolution, the end of the monarchy and the beginning of a somewhat chaotic new era: the same day, the “Year 1 of Equality” was proclaimed. A month later, on 22 September, the National Convention convened: in order to further disentangle state and church, he declared the Christian Gregorian time system to be over and done with for good, and introduced a new way of measuring time with the Republican Calendar, also known as the Revolutionary Calendar. 22 September 1792 became “Day 1” in “Year 1 of the Republic”. The poor French may have got rid of the unpopular Ancien Régime, but they now had to get accustomed to new rules. The year still lasted twelve months, but these now had names that referred to the climate, such as Vendémiaire (month of wine), Brumaire (month of mist) or Germinal (month of buds) and all lasted exactly 30 days. The week as such was abolished: there were three décades of ten days each per month, with the tenth being a day of rest. Five extra days were added as national holidays at the end of the year, plus one more day every leap year.

But that’s where it began to get really complicated. To adhere to “the principle of rationality”, the National Convention decreed a new division of time for its citizens on 5 October 1793. It was to follow the decimal system, similar to metres and francs, and be easier to calculate. From then on, a day was divided into just ten hours, which were nearly two-and-a-half times as long as before (144 minutes according to today’s time calculation). A revolutionary hour measured 100 minutes, a minute 100 seconds. Besides unsettling everyone, one thing was certain: the existing clocks and watches were useless.


A second hour hand

Naturally, the French struggled with the new division of time. Revolution or no revolution, old habits die hard. Most still (secretly) used the Gregorian calendar, which is why the dials of the new pocket watches and pendulum clocks displayed both the new decimal and the old units of time. Using a second hour hand, the combination was relatively easy to construct. The most famous brands of the era were Berthoud, Firstenfelder, Lenoir and Perrier.

We do not know which atelier made the pocket watch exhibited in the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum, as it is unsigned. What can be said with certainty is that it was made in France around 1800. Framed by a gold case, the enamel dial features black Roman numerals for the ten Republican hours and red Arabic numerals for the 24 conventional hours of the day. Plus decimal minutes in steps of ten and duodecimal minutes in steps of fifteen. Two large hands indicate the two different hours, while the minute hand completes one rotation of the scale per day.




The Idea slumbers on

For more than ten years the French had to cope with an official and an unofficial time. At some point, the government had had enough of unsuccessfully demanding acceptance of the Revolutionary Calendar from the populace. To start with, they abolished the ten-day décade on 31 March 1802 and went back to the seven-day week. Later, hours and minutes also fell victim to people’s unwillingness to give up old habits: Emperor Napoleon decreed on 9 September 1805 that the unpopular way of measuring time would expire on 31 December that year. Not that the vision of decimal time has been buried forever. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the republican calendar, the flame of the timekeeping revolution flared up once again. At the Great Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, concrete plans were proposed for reintroducing decimal time on 1 January 1901. The idea was to divide the day into 100 parts, called cés. A cé, equivalent to about a quarter of an hour, was divided into 10 decicés or 100 centicés.

In 1897, the Society for the Propagation of Decimal Time was finally forced to concede that the world – France, that is – was not ready for another revolution. Another 100 years later, similar plans by a Swiss company also failed spectacularly: on 23 October 1998, Swatch launched what they called Internet Time, reminiscent of French Revolutionary Time. They proposed dividing the day into 1000 beats. And the truly progressive thing about this plan was that the different time zones would cease to exist. The world would have aligned itself to “Biel Mean Time”, which was equivalent to Central European time. Swatch claimed that this kind of timekeeping would lead to greater clarity, especially with the rise of video conferences and chats with participants from all around the world. But Internet Time was hardly intuitive, an insult to Americans and Asians and, despite the decimal units, much too difficult to calculate. Without the corresponding watch (from Swatch, of course) it would have been virtually impossible to grasp. The plans were soon buried in the archives, although Swatch has repeatedly stated that the project is not yet dead, but in a “quiet ghost” state. 73 years from now, when Revolutionary Time marks its 300th anniversary, it appears unlikely at this point in time that another attempt will be made to introduce a decimal system in the calculation of time. But of one thing we can be sure: the close ties between Switzerland and France will doubtless have added another exciting chapter or two by then.

Text: Matthias Mächler
Contributor: Monika Winkler

Beyer Chronometrie