How The Zytglogge Astronomical Clock In Switzerland Inspired Einstein

Switzerland’s small capital city Bern is home to the Zytglogge Astronomical Clock, a masterpiece of medieval clockmaking. Overlooking the charming UNESCO-listed Old Town streets below, the clock is installed in one of the city’s oldest monuments, the Zytglogge tower. While it would still be several centuries until the Swiss dominated the craft of watch-making, this early timekeeping marvel is one of the most stunning astronomical clocks in the world.

The name Zytglogge translates to ‘time bell’, or Zeitglocke in German. Historically, a time bell was a primitive timekeeping device that consisted of a clock mechnism, with a hammer that struck a bell struck every hour. Originally a city watchtower, the Zytglogge was given its new name (and identity) when the astronomical clock was installed.

About The Zytglogge Astronomical Clock

The astronomical clock displays lots of information, besides just the time. A slow-moving central hand indicates the time in 24 hours. A rotating disc on the face of the clock shows the sign of the zodiac, represented by the zodiac symbols.

The clock also shows the time of sunrise and sunset, the lunar phase, and the date (although it needs to be manually adjusted every leap year, to account for the 29th of February). A painted fresco above the clock displays five Roman gods from ancient mythology.

The Hourly Performance Of The Zytglogge Clock

Every hour, when the clock strikes the hour, the golden rooster moves its mechanical wings, starting a small procession of wooden figurines that emerges from the clock to perform a mechanised routine. It’s a beloved show that many visitors to Bern like to stop and observe, and similar to the Prague Astonomical Clock’s routine.

The jester frolicking at the top of the clock begins to ring the bells with each hand, whilst a procession of dancing bears, bears on horses, and drumming bears turn on a spinning carousel. The bears symbolise the power of the city, and are featured on the city’s coat of arms. Meanwhile, the god of time, Chronos, turns his hourglass over. The show only takes a few seconds, but it’s a lovely little thing to witness.

The Zytglogge Tower

The earliest iteration of the Zytglogge was built in 1191, constructed in the Romanesque style and serving as the western gate to the small city’s fortifications. It began as a tower of just 16 metres (52 feet), but as the city grew, and the walls extended to the Käfigturm tower (built in 1256), the Zytglogge was heightened by 7 metres (23 feet) to look over the increasingly high houses. The defenses grew again in 1344 to incorporate a third tower, the (now destroyed) Christoffelturm.

Drawing of Zytglogge Tower Bern

It was used as a women’s prison during the 14th century, until a fire in 1405 devastated the inside. It was not a total disaster, as the structure of the tower was saved, and gave the tower a chance to rebuild its identity of a clocktower. During its rebuild, the first clock was installed, which gave the Zytglogge its current name as a ‘time bell’. The astronomical clock was installed either in 1405, or during the renovation of 1467-1483.

Where once it was the outer watch tower for the city, now Bern had expanded around it, and the Zytglogge was in a perfect central location to announce the time to the residents. As it stands today, it is 54.5 metres (179 feet), more than 3 times its original height.

Inside The Zytglogge Tower

Visitors can visit the inside of the tower, and climb the 130 steps to find an incredible view of the rooftops of Bern’s Old Town. Tiled roofs, copper spires and cobblestone streets spiderweb out from the tower. Inside the clock tower, you can see the complex gears of the clock mechanism, which is explained by the guide.

The Zytglogge was also used as the official centre of Bern, against which travel distances could be measured (similar to the Point Zéro des Routes de France in Paris).

Einstein And The Zytglogge Astronomical Clock

In 1905, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein was working in the patent Office of the Swiss town of Bern. The 26-year old theoretical physicist had just completed his thesis on the 30th of April, and was working on a scientific paradox.

As the story goes, Einstein heard the bells of the Zytglogge Astronomical Clock chiming, and imagined a theoretical scenario. What if a streetcar was moving away from the tower at the speed of light? He could be sitting in the streetcar, and note that his watch would still be ticking, but if he were to observe the Zytglogge, time would appear to stand still.

Just a few weeks later, Einstein published these findings in his monumental paper, On The Electrodynamics Of Moving Bodies, calling it the Special Theory of Relativity. 1905 is known as Einstein’s annus mirabilis (amazing year). His works would go on to influence everything from nuclear energy and space travel, to computer chips, and even art.

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Bern’s beautiful and whimsical Zytglogge Astronomical Clock is one of the many small touches that makes the Old Town of this small Swiss city so alluring. Witnessing the hourly processing of figurines is a lovely thing to wait around for when exploring the city streets, and taking a tour of the tower, especially to look out over the rooftops of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is especially worth it.