In 1526 time stopped in the capital of Switzerland. The city’s Zygtlogge, or “time bell” tower that chimed and announced the hour to the bustling citizens of Bern below had broken down. An unknown blacksmith would be given the chance by city officials to bring back the tower’s clock and solidify his name in Swiss history. To bring back the city’s clock tower, time would be of the essence. Could this humble craftsman become time’s governor?
Originally a defensive tower on the city’s first outer wall, the first iteration of the Zytglogge was constructed in 1218. A great fire swept through all of Bern in 1405 and destroyed the tower along with it, giving officials the chance to rebuild with a completely new design. As a result of the city’s growth over the previous two centuries, where the Zytglogge stood was no longer the defensive end of the city, and it was devised to build an extravagant mechanized clock tower. No expense was spared by the wealthy Swiss city, with clock faces on both sides and the eastern portion displaying an astronomical clock, a calendar, a marker announcing the day of the week, and a cast of colorful characters that come to life at the top of the hour. Quite handy for a working medieval city.
When the mechanizations that powered the clocks broke down, a wide search was carried out for a craftsperson who’d be able to bring the Zytglogge back to life. For the promise of 1,000 Bernese Gulden–local coin to you and I–Karl Brunner was selected to lead the repairs. A blacksmith with no experience in horology, he designed and built a mechanized system that would have things in the tower running like clockwork again in three years. Brunner’s design was so savvy it’s still running today, the movement mechanism still bearing his metal seal after almost 500 years.
Since that infamous breakdown, time has continued to be tracked without any major disturbances. Centuries after Karl’s stroke of genius, the 176-foot tall Zytglogge would inspire a young Albert Einstein to begin working towards his theory of relativity. Realizing that time in a streetcar moving at the speed of light would appear differently on a passenger’s watch than the clock of the Bernese tower it passed by, the beginning ideations of the “e=mc squared” would be born.
Today, a city worker whose title translates to “Governor of Time” and his assistants maintain the tower’s movement every day. Pulling the weight that powers the mechanism back up to its beginning perch, time is “governed” strictly, with processes in order to maintain Karl Brunner’s long successful streak. Time has no signs of slowing down in Bern anytime soon.
Written By: Seamus McMahon