Design Moment: Swiss railway clock, 1944

Strikingly simple look is a triumph of modernist design

The Swiss  railway clock: the simple, unfussy  look proclaims reliability and order. Photograph: AFP/GettyImages

The Swiss railway clock: the simple, unfussy look proclaims reliability and order. Photograph: AFP/GettyImages

 

With its easy-to-read face and strikingly simple look, the Swiss railway clock is a triumph of modernist design. Little wonder it continues to survive the rush to digital.

It was designed in 1944 by Zurich engineer Hans Hilfiker for the Swiss Federal Railways (Schweizerische Bundesbahnen or SBB). There are no numbers and the clear black on white markings were designed to be visible from a distance and quickly read by commuters rushing for their trains.

The unfussy look proclaims reliability and order – created at a time of disorder and chaos when Europe was at war. The second hand was added in 1953, coloured red and in the shape of a railway guard’s signalling disc. Its movement is mesmerising, taking 58.5 seconds to circle the face, then the hand pauses at the top of the clock for one and half seconds. That brief pause was, according to Hilfiker, to “bring calm in the last moment and ease punctual train departure”.

In 2014 cost cutting at SBB meant that the second hand was quietly phased out – much to the disgruntlement of Swiss commuters. As it is run on a separate motor to the main hands, SBB made the money-saving decision to remove the second hand when that motor needed replacing.

Apple payout

The design has proved lucrative for the railway company. Since 1986 it has been licensed to the Mondaine Group who make consumer-oriented clocks and a range of popular wristwatches – most still have that red second hand.

SBB also got a windfall from Apple in 2012, an undisclosed amount but believed to be in the region of €16 million – when it was noticed that the clock app in the iOS6 operating system in the iPhone and iPad featured the Swiss clock or at least a modernist black and white clock face with a red second hand that looked very similar. Legal action was avoided and the company agreed to licence the design from SBB. At the time a spokesman for SBB was quoted as saying the company was “rather proud that a brand as important as Apple is using our design”.

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