Neuchâtel Observatory

Neuchâtel Observatory in 1912 (L’Observatoire Cantonal neuchâtelois 1858-1912)

The Neuchâtel Observatory (1858-2007) was founded by a decree of the Neuchâtel government. Its objectives were to determine and distribute time with precision to support the watchmaking industry, to set up a system to control chronometers manufactured in the region and to issue them with running certificates. These certificates had to come from a scientifically recognised institution. The Observatory is largely responsible for the precision reputation of the canton of Neuchâtel. Thanks to the time signal it has been transmitting daily on the radio since the 1930s, it has shaped the daily lives of generations of Swiss people.

The Observatory has also been active in various scientific fields, such as geodesy, metrology, seismology and meteorology. The first director, Adolphe Hirsch, contributed to the map of Switzerland, as well as to the International Commission on Weights and Measures, of which he was secretary. From 1960 onwards, the Observatory was at the forefront of research into atomic clocks. The Galileo satellites are equipped with clocks originally designed by it.

Centenary of the Neuchâtel Observatory, 1958. Archive Memoriav (movie in french and german)

The site of the Observatory has a heritage attraction, the buildings were designed for their scientific function. The oldest, known as the “Meridian Building” housed the telescope of the same name, the basis for determining time. It also contained the chronometer room, where the precision clocks were located, and rooms for examining the chronometers. The houses of the director and the concierge mechanic, which have since been demolished, completed the Observatory site.

Hall “Art Nouveau, Style Sapin” of the Hirsch Pavilion with the bust of the memorial of the first director, Adolphe Hirsch. (L’Observatoire Cantonal neuchâtelois 1858-1912)

The Hirsch Pavilion, built in 1912, was financed by the legacy of the Observatory’s first director, Dr. Adolphe Hirsch, who donated the sum of 243,000 francs at the time (about 4 million francs today) to the State of Neuchâtel, on the express condition that it build an astronomical observatory. Dr. Hirsch had specified the type of instruments he wished to install. Several old instruments are still present in these facilities, such as the Zeiss triple refractor telescope and the Quervain-Piccard seismograph. The precision clocks under an isobaric glass bell were dismantled and transported to the MIH for safekeeping, along with more than a hundred pieces of equipment and apparatus from the Observatory. Some could be reinstalled on the site in the future.

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