Hans Hilfiker’s SBB station clock, after 1955.
Hans Hilfiker’s SBB station clock, after 1955. Swiss National Museum

The iconic Swiss station clock

The Bundeshaus in Bern, Lucerne’s Kapellbrücke bridge, Geneva’s Jet d’eau: Switzerland has a whole host of landmarks. And yet there’s one of them to which we never give a second thought, even though we see it every day: the Swiss railway station clock.

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.

iPad users across Switzerland were absolutely astonished on that Thursday morning, 20 September 2012: overnight, Apple had released the long-awaited update of its operating system, the new version iOS 6. One of the new features was an alarm clock – and, to everyone’s surprise, the clock design was that of the classic Swiss railway station clock. Since its introduction in 1947, thousands of these clocks have graced all SBB stations, and it’s considered a classic of modern industrial design far beyond Switzerland’s borders. The revolutionary clock had been designed in 1944 by engineer and self-made designer Hans Hilfiker. Precision engineer Hilfiker, born in 1901, originally studied electrical engineering and telecommunications at ETH. He then embarked on a life of professional adventures in South America, where he advised the signal corps of the Argentine army for Albiswerk Zurich, which was part of Siemens, set up telephone exchanges and trained military personnel, put a telephone line through the middle of the swampy river basin of the Río Paraná, planned the laying of a submarine cable across the delta of the Río de la Plata and, last but by no means least, prepared to take over the running of an Argentinian operating company. But these plans fell through, and at 30 years of age Hilfiker returned to Switzerland.
Hans Hilfiker at an exhibition on pioneers of Swiss design at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich, October 1984.
Hans Hilfiker at an exhibition on pioneers of Swiss design at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich, October 1984. ETH-Bibliothek
In 1932 Hilfiker took up a position as an engineer in SBB Bauteilung III, one of the company’s construction divisions. The order he received after his promotion to head of department was quite an ambitious one. The SBB wanted a new, extremely sturdy and reliable station clock that would not only show the exact time, but would even become part of the country’s national identity as an emblem of the Federal Railways. Hilfiker’s response was a radically stripped back, classic clock face with interior illumination that made it easy to read at any hour of the day or night. The rest is history: even now almost 5,000 of these clocks, made by clock manufacturer Moser-Baer AG in Sumiswald and controlled by around 760 master clocks, adorn every railway station building across Switzerland. Hilfiker didn’t stop at the clock. He carried on innovating, designing a new type of gantry crane for loading heavy goods from trucks onto rail cars, a positively futuristic platform roof for the Winterthur-Grüze train station, a timetable projector for Zurich railway station, and a service building – now a listed heritage monument – for overhead line maintenance in the Zurich railway yards. However, the station clock was to remain his most famous invention.
Platform roofs at Winterthur-Grüze railway station, designed by Hans Hilfiker, photograph from 1992.
Platform roofs at Winterthur-Grüze railway station, designed by Hans Hilfiker, photograph from 1992. ETH-Bibliothek
Hilfiker’s minimalist design of 1944 was a radical departure from the ornate clock faces of the Art Nouveau period: white background; hour and minute divisions indicated by austere black rectangles; no numerals; strictly geometric, gracefully tapering hands – and lastly, a slender red sweep hand with a red disc, which is in the shape of the baton used by train dispatch staff and means the clock can be read to the exact second, even from some distance away. Hilfiker’s design was so elegant, timeless and functional that today, almost all industrial and railway station clocks in the world are based on it. The SBB clock has claimed its place in the Design Museum in London and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and since 1986 it has even been available in a miniature version for the wrist, produced by Swiss watch manufacturer Mondaine.
Movement of a Swiss station clock manufactured by Mobatime, 1947-1959 model.
Movement of a Swiss station clock manufactured by Mobatime, 1947-1959 model. Wikimedia
“I han en Uhr erfunde, wo geng nach zwone Stunde blybt stah” (I invented a clock that always stops after two hours), warbled Bernese singer-songwriter Mani Matter in 1966. Hilfiker’s station clock also stops: every time the sweep hand reaches twelve, it pauses briefly until the minute hand jumps forward, and the red disc then starts moving again. The reason for this odd second stop is in the technology. In 1947, when Hilfiker’s new clock was introduced, synchronisation to the second wasn’t yet possible. The master clocks responsible for controlling the timekeeping delivered an electrical impulse only once a minute, at precisely zero seconds, which ensured all the clocks connected to that circuit were accurate. However, because the SBB clock was still supposed to indicate the seconds, Hilfiker reached into his bag of tricks and had the red pointer driven by an ordinary electric motor. The motor wasn’t very precise and so it had to be set to run a little fast, so that the second hand always reached the twelve one or two seconds too early and then waited for the minute signal. Even though synchronisation to the second would now be easily achievable, the SBB station clock has become a national icon, and so the SBB clocks still tick along just as they did in Hilfiker’s time, including a second’s pause at the twelve.
At the full minute, the sweep hand on the SBB clock takes a short break. Swiss National Museum
Hilfiker scored a major coup in 2012 when Apple incorporated his clockface into its iPad operating system. Exceptional design has always been a hallmark of the Californian tech giant. But there was a snag: the look of the classic clock is strictly protected by law. While SBB was flattered that its clock had made it onto Apple tablets, the corporation’s unauthorised use of the design was an issue. The Bundesbahnen made representations in Cupertino, tough negotiations went on behind the scenes, and in the end Hilfiker’s clock quietly disappeared from iPads when the new OS version was launched. And on top of that Apple agreed to pay a fine, the amount of which was never officially made public. Investigations by the Swiss media revealed that it was likely to have been around 20 million francs.

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