Swiss Railway Clock: Running on time

As Switzerland joins much of Europe in the annual confusion of moving the clocks back this 27th October, it’s good to know there’s one clock that’s always running on time: the iconic Swiss Railway Clock.

Designed in 1944 by Hans Hilfiker, an engineer with the Swiss Railways, the clock was designed for legibility at a distance. It had no numbers, but a series of small black lines and wedges. And because Swiss trains are scheduled to leave at the full minute, the second hand was left off as well. It’s a wonderful example of Swiss design, including only what’s necessary, and nothing else.

(So wonderful, in fact, that Apple was eager to imitate it. Their lookalike clock app for iOS 6 ended up costing them 20 million CHF in retroactive licensing fees once SBB, the Swiss Railways trademark holder, took notice.)

But it takes more than a good-looking clock to make sure connections from Bellinzona to Basel, and from Lugano to Lausanne, are all operating with exactly the same precision. The real genius behind the clock face was that every clock throughout Switzerland is connected to a master clock. The master clock sends out a signal every minute to synchronize the clocks, so that railway clocks in Zermatt and Zurich both tell the same exact time.

Precision like this can feel otherworldly, and machines so precise risk feeling alien our own human imprecision. But Hilfiker, whose other claim to fame is having developed the modular kitchen, obviously knew something about how people lived and worked.

And he knew that when you’re rushing to catch your train, 60 seconds could make all the difference in the world. Which is why, in his 1953 clock redesign, he added the signature red second hand for which his railway clock is famous today. The disk at one end suggests the baton once used by conductor to despatch trains. But the real human touch is that train passengers now know whether it’s 55 seconds or 5 seconds till the train departs, whether they need to rush or can take their time.

The clock seems to take its time, too – at least, very briefly, and once every 58.5 seconds. It completes its circle in less than a minute, and then pauses for 1.5 seconds to receive the signal from the master clock to continue. It means that all the clocks stay synchronized, and they even get to take a breath before continuing on. And the pause is such an instantly recognizable aspect of the trademarked timepiece that licensed watch maker Mondaine included it in their commemorative Swiss Railways watch as well.

The Swiss Railway Clock fêted its 75th anniversary in 2019, is now featured in New York’s MoMa and the London Design Museum as a piece of exceptional design. And clearly, despite the time change on Sunday, this justly celebrated symbol of Swissness shows no signs of slowing down.

Photo credits: ©SBB CFF FFS