• THE TECHNIQUE
  • The Swiss railway clock’s red second hand arrives at the numeral 12 position after a rotation taking 58 seconds. It then waits two seconds to receive an automatic electrical impulse sent each full minute from a central master clock located in the station, at which point the black minute hand jumps to the next minute position and the red second hand begins a new rotation.
  • The second hand, added in 1953, is shaped like
  • the signaling disc used by railway guards
  • THE ICON
  • ALWAYS ON TIME
  • HERE’S TO THE MINIMALIST SWISS CLOCK,
  • NOW 70 YEARS OLD, THAT KEEPS A
  • NATION ON SCHEDULE

Switzerland’s international reputation for punctuality owes much to a 70-year-old clock displayed in most of its railway stations. Designed in 1944 by Hans Hilfiker, a Swiss engineer employed by Swiss Federal Railways, and produced by clock manufacturer Moser-Baer under the Mobatime trademark, the Swiss railway clock instantly became a design classic. Today it features in collections at London’s Design Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is used by homeowners around the world.

Visual simplicity and technical ingenuity account for its iconic status. Despite lacking numerals, the striking monochrome clockface can easily be read from a distance. Originally, only minute and hour hands were deemed necessary, but in 1953 Hilfiker added a red second hand, cleverly shaped like the signaling disc then used by railway guards, to highlight the Swiss rail network’s impressive efficiency, as it allowed passengers to see precisely when trains arrived and departed.

All Swiss railway clocks are synchronized by a central master clock located in every station’s communications room. At each full minute an electrical impulse is automatically sent via the power network to advance the minute hands. On Hilfiker’s design, however, an internal electrical motor drives the second hand independently from the master clock. Ingeniously, the second hand’s full rotation takes 58 seconds. The second hand then pauses for two seconds before receiving the minute impulse from the master clock to start a new rotation – a unique feature that ensures the precise departure of trains on the full minute across the entire Swiss rail system.

The clock’s trademark and copyrights are still owned by Swiss Federal Railways. Since 1986, it has licensed the Zurich-based watchmaker Mondaine to make quartz-operated wall clocks, desk models and watches based on the design. Today the clock is sold at lifestyle shops internationally and is available via Amazon.com, an extraordinary achievement for a design conceived when neither radio- nor satellite-based timekeeping existed.

TEXT BY NICOLE SWENGLEY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARLES NEGRE