In August I was lucky enough to stay in a friend’s apartment overlooking the Jardin du Palais Royal in Paris. It’s a really beautiful small park, a square surrounded by vaulted passages boasting luxury boutiques and traditional cafes. The garden is filled with tourists and locals alike, walking, sitting, playing, eating, smoking… There are impressive fountains and perfectly straight rows of perfectly-manicured trees. A typical Parisian park.
But there’s an oddity in this park. Something that might make you stop and wonder for a moment. In the middle of one of the lawns, sitting on a squat concrete plinth is a tiny cannon. When we were there the lawns were closed so it wasn’t possible to get near the cannon for a closer look but after a bit of searching I found a sign in one of the flower beds that explained a little bit about it.
First installed in 1786, this cannon is one known as a canon meridien or canon solaire. The cannon was built by a clockmaker called Sieur Rousseau, proprietor of one of the shops in the neighbouring passages (96 galerie de Beaujolais). The purpose of the canon was to alert everyone in the surrounding area to the exact moment that they should set their clocks to midday. It was originally fitted with a glass lens and a fuse and fired when the midday sun hit the glass. For hundreds of years it fired daily from May to October and drew regular crowds, all keen to keep their timepieces on track. When the law imposing Greenwich mean time on France was passed in 1911, the cannon was silenced.
As the decades drew by, the silent cannon was forgotten and slowly deteriorated from exposure and neglect. Despite a few efforts at renovation and restoration by a number of private groups the city of Paris had lost interest in its former favourite timekeeper. That changed in 1990 when the city’s director of heritage, Christian Dupavillon, decided to bring Rousseau’s invention back to life and let it once again fire every day at midday. Repairs were carried out, parts were replaced and a daily chime rang out until 15 April 1998 when the cannon was stolen in the dead of night.
It was eventually replaced with a replica and now fires just once a week, at midday on Wednesdays. Unfortunately I have never made it back to the park on a Wednesday lunchtime to hear it but there’s a video here for anyone interested.
If you’d like to visit this unusual piece of Parisian history, the nearest metro station is Palais Royal and the park is shown on the map below.