Remarkable clocks and watches: the Swiss railway clock

The clock displayed at all the stations of the Swiss federal railways (SBB) has become a design classic. It was created in the 1940s by engineer and designer Hans Hilfiker (1901–93), who at that time was an SBB employee. The SBB wanted a clock that would not only guarantee the smooth running of the trains, but would become part of their national image.

The clock face is simple and strong. There are no figures: the minutes are denoted by black lines on the white face. The hour and minute hands are also black. Against this black and white background the red second hand stands out. It was nicknamed the “rote Kelle” or “red signal” because of the red disc at the end of it, mimicking the hand-held signal which the station manager used to wave to tell the driver the train could leave.

The red hand, which pauses for 1.5 seconds when it reaches the top of the minute, is clearly visible at a distance. It has become a symbol of Swiss punctuality.

The clock represents Switzerland so well that examples were included among the 100 clocks which the country presented to St Petersburg on the occasion of the 2003 tercentenary of the Russian city’s foundation. Switzerland also presented such a clock to Norway to mark the 100th anniversary of its independence. Admirers of the SBB clock can buy their own replicas: in 1986 the Swiss watchmaker Mondaine launched a copyrighted watch and clock collection based on this classic design; Mondaine’s Official Swiss Railways SBB Watch has itself been named one of the 10 classic watch-making designs to have come from Switzerland. It has also been selected by the London Design Museum and the MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) as one of the most iconic examples of 20th century design. The SBB clock was not Hilfiker’s only contribution to modern living. He developed the concept of the fitted kitchen and was responsible for the standard Swiss dimensions for kitchen components (55/60/90cm).