The Swiss Clock That Conquered the World (and There’s not a Cuckoo in Sight)

I was looking in the window of a local jeweller’s the other day (I wasn’t buying; sadly freelance transport writing doesn’t extend to such largesse), when a display of clocks and watches caught my eye.

It was a range based on one of the most beautiful, simple, clear, clock designs ever to be unleashed on the world. It comes from Switzerland…and it has nothing to do with cuckoos. It is, of course, the Swiss Railway Clock, and for this timeless design (dreadful pun, sorry) we have SBB employee Hans Hilfiker to thank, having come up with the design in the 1940s.

Clock in the main station in Zürich, Switzerland.
Courtesy of JuergenG, modified by Rainer Z, via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license)

It’s not just my opinion that it’s a beautiful design, either. Having done some research into it, I find that there are examples of the Swiss Railway Clock in various museums around the world including London’s Design Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The country of Switzerland occasionally presents replicas to other countries to mark special occasions.

The original clocks work to the particular needs of the Swiss railway network, and Swiss railways are nothing if not highly punctual. They’re not incredibly fast, but they’re very timely. As railway timetables only list departures and arrivals in whole minutes, the minute hand moves only on the stroke of the minute, by one whole minute (it doesn’t creep round slowly), synchronised across the station from a master clock. The distinctive red second hand, based on the signalling discs used by train guards, takes fifty eight and a half seconds to go round the clock, pausing slightly longer at the top to make up the minute – at the moment trains must depart. Isn’t that brilliant? And to think, the second hand didn’t even appear on the early versions of the clock but was added later on.

Since 1986, Swiss timepiece company Mondaine has held the licence to produce an official licensed version of the clock, which it does in many forms. The internet says (but I haven’t been able to confirm) that the commercially available versions of the clock also used to have a 58.5 second circuit for the second hand, but now have conventional 60 second sweeps, which rather takes the fun out of it, I think. But they’re still beautiful pieces of design.

They’re not exactly cheap, but one day, I swear, I’ll own one…

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