As cuckoo as a Swiss clock?

In the 1949 film the Third Man, Orson Wells famously claimed that it was 500 years of Swiss peace and brotherly love that gave birth to the cuckoo clock. Was he right?

According to Welles’s character Harry Lime, 30 years of violence and war in late medieval Italy gave birth to the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and the Renaissance. The more peaceful conditions of their northern neighbours, however, could produce nothing more than an elaborate timepiece.

But it’s good to remember that Welles was playing the villain – and a particularly untrustworthy one at that. Which means it’s not just his Nietzschean justification for historical outcomes that should be doubted, it’s also his basic grasp of the facts.

Where did the first cuckoo pop out?

While timepiece manufacturing is as Swiss as Emmentaler cheese, we’re not the only ones who’ve excelled. In fact, the Black Forest region of Germany has a clock making tradition that goes back a few hundred years, and Black Forest cuckoo clocks featuring animal scenes remain a favourite for tourists all over the world.

But it’s not known where the first cuckoo clocks really did come from. There are numerous early modern descriptions of cuckoo-like mechanisms on clocks seen in Austria and Germany by writers from a variety of nationalities.

Black Forest clock making didn’t really get rolling until the 18th century, when small manufacturers began creating clocks with wooden gears and the conventional chirping cuckoo bird.

It was only in the early 20th century that the Swiss sprung onto the scene, when in 1920 a family company called Lötscher began manufacturing 100% Swiss made cuckoo clocks. They created the distinctive Swiss cuckoo clock style: the Swiss chalet shape, aged wood materials, and playing songs like Edelweiss and the Fröhlicher Wanderer (The Happy Wanderer) that 100 years later are still delighting customers in Switzerland and beyond.

Do origins matter?

While the original invention of a particular tool or instrument may be interpreted as a sign of national genius, it’s good to remember that genius comes in many forms. The Swiss didn’t invent the knife, the clock, the chair, the bridge or using straight lines to make a grid, but it was by applying a certain Swissness that we came up with the Swiss Army Knife, the Swiss Railway Clock, the Landi Chair, New York’s one-kilometre George Washington Bridge and the fundamental structure of world famous Swiss Design.

So Orson Welles to the contrary, the Black Forest cuckoo clock is certifiably older than its Swiss cousin, and you’re welcome to prefer it. But as we celebrate its centennial anniversary this year, we’ll always keep a spot on our wall (and in our hearts) for the inspired originality of the 100% Swiss Cuckoo Clock.