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The railway clocks of Switzerland

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Although Switzerland is well known for its timepieces, I have always been particularly interested in the type of clock displayed at Swiss railway stations. Having enjoyed many Swiss rail journeys over the years, the pleasure for me is always completed by the sight of the station clock’s red second hand, which pauses for one-and-a-half seconds when it reaches the top of the minute. If the train is due to depart at that minute and you are not already on board then, such is this symbol of Swiss punctuality, you will have missed your train.

The clock face is simple and strong and bears no figures. Set on a white face, the hours are denoted by large black lines and the minutes by smaller black lines. The hour and the minute hands are also black and it is against this black and white background that the red second hand stands out so clearly. According to swissworld.org, the second hand was nicknamed the rote Kelle (red signal) because the red disc at its tip apparently mimics the hand-held signal once given by the station manager to inform the driver that the train could leave.

The clock was designed in the 1940s by Hans Hilfiker, an engineer, designer and employee of Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB), the Swiss federal railway. SBB wanted a clock that would not only guarantee the punctuality of its trains but would also become part of the Swiss national image — which it has successfully managed to do.

In 1986, the Swiss watchmaker Mondaine created a copyrighted watch and clock collection based on the original design. This has since been chosen by the London Design Museum and the Museum of Modern Art as one of the most iconic examples of 20th century design.

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