Some 60 years ago, one Hans Hilfiker, a designer for the Swiss Railways, created a Bauhausian station clock that, with its stark, numeral-free dial, was legible from the other end of the platform. It came, in many ways, to be symbolic of the Swiss character - born of efficiency and precision - such that even today it is given as a state gift to other, more tardy nations. Catch up, it seems to say - modernism is leaving you behind. Certainly the Swiss have taken punctuality to new levels: businesses break for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon coffee at always the same times; Swiss Broadcasting, the national broadcasting organisation, has imposed a daily time-sheet that requires employees to record their work activity at 15 minute intervals; the trains, of course, are always on time.
“That punctuality is inherent to the Swiss character goes with our love of cleanliness and neatness,” argues Ronnie Bernheim, managing director of Mondaine, the Swiss watch company that has licensed the Swiss Railway clock design and turned it into a watch. “Whether it’s association with clock-making is an effect or a cause I’m not sure. It is more likely that it is a product of industrialisation - with no natural resources, Switzerland has pursued industries that have been dependent for their international competitiveness on their precision. And that has become a matter of habit. But punctuality is good only depending on how you apply it - it’s not so good for creativity or having fun.”
A regard for punctuality may seem then like a cultural construct, the result of a necessarily highly-regulated society, The Japanese are no less obsessive. The investigation into the cause of the train crash that killed 107 people in Tokyo in 2005 concluded that the driver had accelerated to save time and then hit the emergency brake on a curve. The train was running 90 seconds late. Yet stereotype also offers a counter: Mediterranean peoples, the Sicilians especially, regard the time as mere guide rather than drum master, the theory being that eons of coping with a hot climate necessitates the slow pace they have since inculcated. They live longer than the European average for more reasons than a diet rich in olive oil.
Certainly, psychologists deem people who are perennially rushed, impatient and overly time-conscious as exhibiting ‘type A’ behaviour - more specifically as having a ‘type A coronary-prone personality’, which is to say that their need for constant punctuality is potentially going to kill them. And yet type As are growing in number as life - both work and social - becomes ever more overloaded, in large part down to technology extending both working hours well beyond their traditional limits, but also because 24/7 communication brings with it increased demands. It may have been presumed that the mobile phone would have introduced a new flexibility to time-keeping - having one means never having to be late without giving prior notice, even if that notice is a matter of minutes, behaviour which has somehow come to be regarded as acceptable. Rather it has become another conduit for time pressure.
“The business world thinks it’s a good idea to be punctual for fear of offending a client and the effects of that runs into social behaviour too - we’re expected to show up to a dinner party on time. Punctuality has become conflated with politeness,” suggests occupational psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University Management School. “Our regard for punctuality is also about imposing structure on our lives. But society in general is much more time-driven than it used to be. We’re overloaded. And it’s only going to get worse - the recession is going to mean fewer people doing more work.”
Small wonder that clock-watching is intensifying. ‘Clocking in’ - the use of time recorders, traditionally in heavy industry, to record the coming and going of shift workers - is growing in the white collar world, both as management seeks to maximise productivity but also in response to the imposition of the EU’s Working Time Directive, which demands that employers accurately record worked hours. Heavenly time may be eternal, but earthly time needs to be measured: last year Pope Benedict XVI introduced clocking in for 2,000 senior clerics of the Vatican. Two British universities have, bravely, trialed the idea to improve lecture attendance by students, even one school in a bid to tackle truancy.
Indeed, our living by the clock is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the mid-19th century, people lived as they had done for millennia - by the more natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset, with time a local affair determined by the position of the sun. But big business, in the shape of the new railways, was naturally bothered by the inconsistencies of local time. The answer, suggested one William Wollaston? The imposition of the first standardised time, with, in 1840, the British Great Western Railways effectively forcing the national adoption of London time. By 1855, most public clocks in Britain we set to GMT. When Central Standard Time was similarly backed by the railways in the US in 1883, not everyone was so keen. Detroit kept local time until 1900, and then, when the city council enforced Standard Time, half the city obeyed, and half the city remained 28 minutes ahead.
One imagines that the Swiss would have embraced the enforcement of punctuality with glee. After all, it takes a Swiss to argue that, rather than encourage a life lived in a state of mild panic, punctuality actually prevents it. “Punctuality is comforting,” suggests Kurt Klaus, former head of research and development at the top-end Swiss watch company IWC, inventor of its perpetual calendar and with his tongue nowhere near his cheek. “If you expect something to happen at a certain time and it does then that diminishes stress. It’s stressful to wait. The more punctual you are, the more time you have to relax.” Ponder that next time the alarm clock wakes you.