The Strasburg Clock model has been associated with the Museum for over a century and has become one of its most important icons. 25-year old Sydney clockmaker Richard Bartholomew Smith began building the clock on Anniversary Day (Australia Day) in 1887 and completed it in 1889. Smith sold the clock to the NSW Government later that year or early 1890 for the sum of 700 pounds. It was initially housed in the old Technological Museum in the Domain, but was transferred to the Museum in Harris Street Ultimo in 1893.
The model is based on the astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral in France. Although the origins of this famous clock go back to the middle of the 14th century, Jean Baptiste Schwilgue built the version that inspired Smith between 1838 and 1842. Smith adopted the German spelling of Strasburg/Strassburg for his clock, as during some periods in the past the town was part of Germany.
The highlight of the clock's performance is the procession of the 12 Apostles that takes place on the hour in the top alcove of the central tower. Each hour, in the alcove immediately below, the four ages of man are enacted starting with the figure of a child and ending with that of an old man.
There are numerous dials and functions on the clock. One dial is the orrery that shows the position of the planets out to Neptune with respect to the Sun. The other main dial is the grand astronomical clock that shows what stars are visible from Sydney at any time together with the position of the Sun and the Moon. An ingenious gearing arrangement indicates the phase of the Moon. Another dial shows the time in Sydney while a series of dials show times in major cities throughout the world. Three sliding indicators show the 28-year cycle of the Sun, the equation of time and the 19-year cycle of the Moon, all quantities needed for the calculation of Easter.
A local woodcarver, James Cunningham, is believed to have constructed the wooden case of the clock. Paintings on the case include Urania who is the muse of astronomy, the Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus and Jean Baptiste Schwilgue, the maker of the last clock in Strasbourg Cathedral. Other portraits on the clock include Premier Sir Henry Parkes and political colleagues and contemporaries, scenes of Strasbourg and early Sydney, the three fates, patrons of the arts, death and the resurrection, and a number of artists who assisted Smith with the clock's decorations.
The Strasburg Clock is perhaps the best known iconic object in the Museum's collection. It is, largely, a faithful representation of the nineteenth-century refurbished Strasbourg Clock, and its maker had a long and controversial relationship with generations of Museum directors and curators.