Counting on the World Clock

Counting on the World Clock

The World Clock is important to our lives. Why? Because we count on it. Commerce runs on time, we have to have order.

Steen Hegner, Danish clock-maker

It’s a misty morning in Bispebjerg cemetery on the outskirts of Copenhagen. There are rows and rows of neat graves, with workmen on power mowers tending the expansive gardens. Even in death, Denmark looks after its citizens.

I’m here to visit Jens Olsens’ grave, seven decades after his death. Surrounded by trees and shrubs, a simple boulder with the words “Astro-mechanic, Jens Olsen, World Clock maker”, there is little else to indicate the extraordinary life of a man from humble beginnings, with an obsessive dream and the mindset of an innovator.

Back at Copenhagen’s City Hall, which houses The World Clock, Joyce Svensson from City Hall tells me more about Olsen’s life. Together we search archives and old newspapers in the basement of the building.

The World Clock has an entire room to itself, such is its size and importance in Danish history. If clocks were landscapes, it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty and it’s remarkable for several reasons. The clock consists of 12 movements, which together have over 14,000 parts. The clock has mean time, sidereal time, the position of the planets in the solar system and the stars in the night sky. It has eclipses, sunrises, sunsets, firmament and celestial pole migration, planet revolutions, the Gregorian calendar and changing holidays, such as Easter. It was Olsen who calculated Easter as the 1st Sunday after Spring Equinox.

Displays include lunar and solar eclipses and a perpetual calendar, in addition to the time. The fastest gear completes a revolution every ten seconds and the slowest every 25,753 years. Unfortunately, Olsen died before his life’s work was complete. The mechanism was set in 1955 by the king of Denmark and Olsen’s granddaughter to run for the next 600,00 years. At the time, before digital progress, it was the world’s most accurate clock.

The clock was the life’s work of Jens Olsen, a man with a singular ambition. It was a bold and ambitious dream, forged in the mind of the young Olsen, at the age of just 8 years old. Reading the book “A Polish family”, by Carsten Hauch, a Danish poet, a broken clock in the story caught his imagination. Why was the clock broken and how could it be repaired? Surely if the clock could be made in the first place, it could also be repaired? 8 year old Olsen decided that he would learn how to make clocks and one day fix the Polish family’s clock.

Growing up in the aftermath of Denmark’s Golden Age, a time of abundant creative production, the young Olsen was absorbed in the start of a thread that would give his life drive, purpose and meaning for the next 60 years.

Olsen, a poet, an astronomer, a weaver, a locksmith and a clockmaker overcame obstacles time and again to dream up, design and create one of Denmark’s most famous icons.


Although the clock no longer holds the most accurate astronomical time-keeping in the world, (23H56m 4.33S per day), Olsen’s legacy is outstanding. 

I meet with Steen Hegner, modern-day clock-maker and Daniel Einarsson, watch-maker, to discuss the work of Jens Olsen and his contribution to Denmark and the world. As the clock is mechanical, it must be wound once a week and it’s Hegner and Einarsson who usually maintain and wind the clock. It was my great privilege to wind the clock myself and sign my name in the weekly log. 

Hegner observes “It’s easier to make anything better, if someone has made something already.” Olsen’s knowledge and calculations about the solar systems, at a time before electronic calculators and computers were invented inspired Hegner as a 16 year old, when he first saw the World Clock at Copenhagen Town Hall. Today, he makes stunning clocks and watches, inspired by The World Clock. 

In the words of Einarsson, “Olsen showed Denmark complex, innovative thinking. He’s an immense inspiration. He started something, which is still unique. People are still learning from it

Although Olsen did not live to see his life’s work fully complete, we are fortunate to know some of what drove him to single minded innovation on a grand scale. I’ve distilled 8 key insights that are transferable to the world of innovation at a universal level. Underneath each, I’ve added some questions  which I invite you to reflect on and answer, if you’re curious about what you can learn from a clock and an astro-mechanic.


Olsen’s inspiration came in the form of stories about people, from whom he connected ideas. He was heavily influenced by the Danish stories of his childhood: Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer, Carsten Hauch, poet and author of ‘A Polish Family’ and the legacies of the Danish Silver Age and Golden Age.

Who inspires you? Who can you seek inspiration from? How can you pull the strands of inspiration together?


Olsen had a crystal clear, undiluted vision. He did not waver from this and it drove all of his planning and actions.

What is your vision? How clear is it? 

A plan

Olsen was always planning. His travels round Europe to view other clocks were part of his grand plan. Everything he planned was connected to his vision.

Your vision needs a plan. Draw up a plan to ensure that your activities connect to the vision 

Overcoming obstacles

Some of us view obstacles as annoying. We say things like “I could really do without this at the moment” to express frustration at what’s unfolding. Olsen had a different mindset. Obstacles were challenges to be relished and overcome. “How can I solve it?” was his guiding mindset when he encountered something that didn’t work. There are numerous stories about this way of thinking, even in his personal life. One year, there were so many children gathered that they couldn’t dance round the Christmas tree, a Danish tradition. He decided there and then that the solution was to make the tree go round instead, so he designed a mechanism for a rotating Christmas tree. He was pivoting to the market ahead of his time.

Next time you face annoyances and obstacles, think like Jens Olsen: “How can I fix this?” How can your dilemma become a useful pivot? How can you smash through obstacles so you can make progress?


Olsen wanted to be a watchmaker. At the time, his father thought this was an unsuitable profession. He insisted he become a locksmith instead, far more useful and practical in his view. Olsen never gave up. No matter how many obstacles, professional and personal, he never gave up on his quest.

If you believe in your vision, don’t give up, no matter how rocky the terrain. How can you connect and combine different skills, like Olsen did when he used his locksmith and watch making skills to design one of the world’s most remarkable clocks?

Continuous learning and exploration

Jens Olsen was outward looking. He travelled to Switzerland, the Paris Exposition, London and other places. He looked for inspiration and examples outside of Denmark. He sought out places of interest and ideas round the world. Broadening his horizons through travel contributed new perspectives to his vision and planning.

To gather new perspectives, what can you do to broaden your horizon beyond your current thinking? Travel, visit new places, meet new people, learn new skills, listen to others’ ideas. Find connections between them all.

Future focused

Olsen was future focused. He ensured longevity in his design. There’s no ratchet or counter ratchet spring system; he used either gravity or counterweights in his system. Of course, he couldn’t future proof it completely. That’s just not possible. There are now more accurate clocks in the world and they are of course, digital.

How can you future-proof your plans and designs? You may never fully do so, but thinking about it will open up new ideas and solutions.


Olsen had an unwavering obsession. He faced numerous professional obstacles, like financing it, as well as exacting, complex calculations. He also faced extremely personal difficulties in his life and showed enormous strength and tenacity in the face of his wife’s illness and his sons’s death.

Mindset is everything. Daily hassles in your life can build up and lead to a negative mindset. This in turn affects your performance and work. You start to doubt that you can achieve the vision. You can influence  and change your mindset and help others to do so in simple and effective ways. If you’d like to work on mindset or any other aspect of innovation insight outlined here, we’d love to hear from you.

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