Background to the history of timekeeping

within the railway context

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The organisation of time into precise, regular units of day and night increased rapidly from the mid-18th century as countries in the global north became industrialised. Since their birth in Victorian Britain, railways have played an important role in timekeeping.

Standardised time arrangements were introduced to overcome the issues associated with having local times in towns contrasting with railway timetables and clocks at stations along the expanding railway network displaying a standard ‘mean’ time set in London at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The adoption of this ‘Railway Time’ was one of the most important aspects of running a railway safely and punctually, with better timetable integration. The first such arrangement was introduced by the Great Western Railway in 1840, and it was subsequently adopted by all other train operators. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), as it was already widely known, becoming Britain’s legal standard time in 1880.

Accurate and consistent time is essential to the operation of railways, for efficient and safe travel. Railway companies established a practice of displaying timekeeping devices in prominent positions at stations, on buildings, in towers, in passenger circulation spaces and on platforms. Virtually all railway companies had clocks produced for them, with every station, signal box, train control centre and workers’ spaces having a clock adorning the wall. These timepieces have included large weight-driven regulator clocks, fine bracket clocks and small fusée wall clocks. There are enduring examples of such clocks in historic railway station settings across the UK network (see Figure 3). They have been fabricated using traditional cabinet-making techniques for the wood enclosures, fine and durable mechanisms for the ‘clock work’, and hand-written or printed metal and glass dials. The hands indicating hours and minutes – and often the seconds too – range in shape from decorative cut-out silhouettes to much plainer rectangular bars. Almost every clock dial carried the name of its railway company owner. Many historic examples of railway timepieces are kept in public and private collections: there is deep-seated nostalgia and the link to travel in a bygone golden age.

Over time, as railway operators have modernised their stations and spaces, new forms of clock have replaced many of the original mechanical devices (see Timeline, Figure 4). Electrical networks linked to the train control systems ensure that the clocks display a time consistent with the passenger train timetable. Whilst analogue clocks produced since the mid-twentieth century generally retain the round form their dials – like wristwatches – have frequently become more abstract, with numerals being replaced by batons to mark the hours and minutes. Internationally recognised examples of twentieth century timepieces include the cultural icon that is the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB CFF FFS) platform clock. This was designed in 1944 by SBB engineer Hans Hilfiker, who recognised the specifity of railway clocks, in conjunction with clock manufacturer Moser-Baer (Mobatime). Hilfiker’s design was later modified to incorporate the emblematic red seconds’ hand (redolent of train dispatcher batons) that pauses for 2 seconds prior to the electronic advancement of the minute hand. Under licence, Mondaine has gone onto commercialise this cultural icon world-wide. Other significant European railway clock models include those used on the Deutsche Bahn (DB) and Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) networks, and Bodet Time’s TGV Clock for the Société Nationale Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF). Pragotron - a Czech manufacturing company specialising in timekeeping and visual information systems - produced clocks that were extensively used across Czechoslovakia in government buildings, factories, schools and railway stations. These generally consisted of a primary clock controlling multiple secondary impulse-driven dials. Pragotron is noteworthy for the square format of many of its factory clocks.Electro-mechanical ‘flip’ clocks developed by Italian company Solari di Udine from the early 1950s helped to revolutionise the way in which time was viewed, and for a period these were deployed across the UK rail network. In turn, Solari ‘flip’ panel timepieces were replaced by LED and LCD equivalents, as a result of the railways’ early adoption of new technology. More recently, the ‘square clock’ format has been re-introduced into the public’s consciousness via the Apple Watch. The powerful symbolism of railway station clocks is emphasised by these devices being featured in pivotal scenes of films such as Brief Encounter (UK, 1945), and episodes of situation comedies in Britain (for example Only Fools and Horses) and internationally.

To provide a wider context for research and initiate a broader exploration of the design challenge, Network Rail has commissioned a study to provide an historical perspective and highlight the range of time-keeping devices, uses and the settings they occupy across the UK national rail network, together with some internationally recognised exemplars of clock design. The Timepiece study will be made available to Competitors on registration. Representative examples are given in Figure 3 - it should be noted that the illustrations are of existing clock and time-keeping devices and not necessarily representative of what Network Rail is seeking to provide and achieve in the future.

Figure 3

Examples of the range of timekeeping devices that can be found across the UK rail network

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Figure 4

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