Introduction Central European Time in Switzerland

In the 19th century, every town in Switzerland had a different time!
Article in L’Illustré, “Le changement d’heure, quelle histoire!”, October 2018

Graphic published in a supplement to the “Berner Tagblatt” on 3 June 1894 about the introduction of Central European Time (Mitteleuropäische Zeit, M.E.Z.) in Switzerland two days earlier. While the watch in the centre is at noon… © Berner Heim/Swiss National Library

There was a time when there was, for example, a difference of 1 minute and 57 seconds between Geneva and Lausanne, 3 minutes and 8 seconds with Neuchâtel, 4 minutes and 1 second with Fribourg and 4 minutes and 50 seconds with Sion. As Jakob Messerli, Director of the Museum of History in Berne, writes in an article on time measurement, “In the mid-19th century, mechanical clocks were still set throughout the country according to sundials. The creation of the federal state in 1848 did not lead to any unification of time measurement systems and each Swiss locality continued to have its own time. With a difference of 18 minutes between the extreme points of the territory, from east (Val Müstair) to west (canton of Geneva)”. It was the installation of the telegraph network in 1852 that sounded the death knell for the coexistence of different times in the territory. The acceleration of communications required a unified system. In 1853, the Federal Council adopted the Berne mean time for all postal and telegraphic traffic. From 1860 onwards, this time was set daily by the Neuchâtel Observatory. In the second half of the 19th century, the railways also aligned themselves with Berne time, which became the national standard and Berne, the time capital of the country, in the second half of the 19th century. Yes, we were living on Berne time without always suspecting it. And for those who were indifferent to the clock stories, we can still hold on to the timeless Latin saying: “If you want to put a price on days, don’t count the hours!”.

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