The Origins of Punctuality in Switzerland and how it makes them ‘tic’ differently

Mention the Swiss, and people instantly think of punctuality. It is not just the trains and buses, but also the Swiss themselves who never seem to fail to get to the right place at the promised time or, more important, deliver the right goods and services at the promised time.

Is this important in terms of helping us to understand why the Swiss have had such extraordinary success in several branches of industry and commerce over the past two centuries? I think it is. I think habitual punctuality is a competitive advantage for the Swiss and is one of the reasons the country has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world.

I will happily leave to someone else the task of assessing just how important punctuality is to competitiveness, but, as a result of the research we did for our book, Swiss Made, I thought I would share with you some of the historical forces that may have contributed to this very attractive character trait. 
Time continues has captured imaginations throughout history.  To this date, controversy still reigns as to when time began (i.e. ‘the big bang theory’) and most of the world’s major religions like Christianity, Judaism, Hindu and Islam maintain as fundamental tenets that time continues indefinitely, at least in spirit, if not in body.  But in between time is a scarce resource that never stands still, so how we manage it is therefore important.  Moreover, there are humanity places a premium on being first, and quickness and speed are praised rather than scorned.

Most of us think of punctuality has simply being about being on time. In fact, when you think about it, punctuality has a number of aspects to it.   The stories I want to share with you focus on three of them: trust, equality and precision. 

If punctuality means “ the ability to do something at an agreed time”, then appointments are in effect a form of ‘contract’.  The ability to do what you say, or in more colloquial terms ‘keeping one’s end of the bargain’, is fundamental to trusting someone.  It may seem to many a trivial matter, but if someone is reliable and can be counted upon in small matters, it inspires confidence to engage with them in larger dealings. 

A second feature that derives from ‘punctuality’ is the egalitarian make-up of the ‘Swiss’.  Being on time, when you think about it, is an expression of equality. In many societies, keeping someone waiting is a form of showing one’s superiority. Switzerland skirted feudalism and the monarchies that created rigid hierarchies to define their social strata, many of which survive today.  An example of the egalitarian nature of Switzerland can be found in its military history. Aristocratic armies in France, Prussian, England and Italy touted cavalry as a sign of their superior stature. A horse, fully outfitted was a large investment, required constant provision and care, and training of both the horse and the rider was extensive. Uniforms and exotic hats, like the feathers of peacocks, were evidence of rank and standing.  In short, the cavalry had from the outset a selection bias, and within this privileged stratum, there was a pronounced pecking order.  All of this was worthwhile, because cavalry conferred a competitive advantage over foot soldiers that required long delays to reload single shot muskets. 

The Swiss response to the superior force of the cavalry was to invent a formation called the ‘pike’.  

A pike square generally consisted of about 100 men in a 10×10 formation. Each soldier had a long (x meter) spear and marched in tight, disciplined formation with his colleagues. When threatened the square could point all of the pikes at the enemy forces and move inexorably toward its target. In the Battle of Nancy in 1477, the Swiss used the pike to devastating effect to defeat a more powerful armored French cavalry force. The battle is generally seen as one of the turning points that established the infantry as the primary fighting arm in European warfare from the 16th century onwards. And the Swiss became one of the most feared and most effective ground forces in Europe of.

The point here is that the tactic depended on well-trained and cooperative troops who could move in unison while in close formation. Each soldier was equally important and the group’s strength derived from its ability to excel as an egalitarian unit.

John Stuart Mill said that the goal of any republic is to achieve ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’.  The egalitarian nature of the Swiss society is largely responsible for the 2nd of these primary objectives and, incidentally, helped the Swiss to value punctuality. 
Many may feel this is historical and no longer useful or relevant. Think again.  Hans-Joerg Wyss, the wealthiest self-made man in Switzerland and largest donor ever to Harvard, takes normal public transportation and refuses to have a private driver. Egon Zehnder redefined the executive search industry in large part because the firm has an old fashioned reward system. Each partner holds an equal ownership in the firm and partners are paid based on collective (not individual) results.  Thomas Schmidheiny, the largest shareholder of Holcim, passed through all the stages of cement production from the lowest levels in uncomfortable places in Peru and Mexico before assuming management responsibilities.
Speaking of sharp points, the word punctuality comes from Medieval Latin punctualis, which itself comes from Latin punctum ‘a point.’  

This etymology of punctuality brings us now to the importance of precision as a feature of ‘Swissness’.  Once again, it was military advantage, which provided rewards for progress.  But first the stage needed to be set in what may have been the most comprehensive change in Europe’s socio-political landscape since the Renaissance.

For most of mankind the ‘sundial’ was the most accurate form of keeping time.  And it was perfectly adequate until work migrated from the farm to the factory where more accurate time keeping was required.  The Protestant Reformation ushered in the industrial revolution and Switzerland was the home of Calvin and Zwingli, two of the movement’s most important actors.  

Until the late 16th century, Switzerland was just one of many countries that happened to produce timepieces. However, successive waves of anti-Protestant persecution in France changed that. Huguenot refugees from France brought with them the craft skills in jewellery and clock-making that would help transform the Swiss industry. 

The Huguenots brought with them a number of valuable attributes. They were immigrants eager to work hard and improve their living standards; they were skilled artisans, dedicated to their trade; they could read the Bible and were critical, two qualities that were discouraged by the Roman Catholic Church, which had a monopoly on the minds and hearts of Europeans for a thousand years; and they were a clan, with intricate and extensive networks in the major trading centres in Europe, including Glasgow, London, Naples and Paris.  Much of the Swiss watch, textile and pharmaceutical giants of today owe their heritage to this casting of a single signature in Nantes in 1598.

Moreover, Calvin’s views on Protestantism were stricter than those of Luther. Many craftsmen up until then were commissioned by the church, and concentrated on glorifying images with a focus on beauty and mystique. Or they worked on jewellery that appealed to vanity and status. But Calvin prohibited members from partaking in such work and encouraged craftsmanship that had a tangible and practical value. Watchmaking suited the intersection of Huguenot skills and Calvin’s constraints. To prove oneself, a Swiss craftsmen was evaluated on results rather than beauty, and results in watchmaking meant more accurate time, which required more precise movements. People who rush, also tend to trip, and being precise takes more time. 

In a world increasingly characterized by 'fast food' and 'just-in-time' manufacturing, we sometimes forget what is most important is to do things right -not just fast.  And doing things right often involves taking a bit more time.

Military conquest also urged greater precision. A watch on the wrist undergoes more movement and suffers more shocks than one in the waistcoat pocket. (Early wristwatches varied in accuracy up to two hours per day due to movements and changes in angles.) 

The First World War of 1914-18 saw tanks and aircraft deployed in action for the first time. Artillery was larger and more accurate than ever, and machine guns became common. In this kind of warfare the wristwatch proved to be of vital importance for soldiers. Together with another invention, the radio, they were critical to executing co-ordinated manoeuvres over wide distances. In addition, the imminence of an enemy threat could be measured on the second-hand by the time–lapse between seeing an artillery barrel-flash and hearing the sound. Watches were also used by hospital nurses for taking a patient’s pulse and by scientists to conduct repeatable experiments with consistent results. 

It is difficult to convey the extraordinary complexity and precision inherent in watchmaking. There are up to 400 parts, many of which are moving, packed into a container about the size of a coin. Much of this work is done with the assistance of a high-powered microscope by people who have spent most of their lifetimes mastering their trade. The tolerance for error or mistake ranges from miniscule to non-existent.

The precision engineering mastered for watch-making has enabled the Swiss to excel in other sectors.  The construction of tiny screws laid the foundations for the Swiss orthopaedic industry; the human body rejects foreign substances, so the smaller the screws the more moderate the immune reaction.  Tiny DC electric motors developed for watches helped Phonak, a Swiss company, develop revolutionary hearing aids. Its factory in Stäfa is reminiscent of a watch factory in Le Locle. 

So this is my brief survey of the origins of  ‘punctuality’ and its relevance with regard to distinguishing Swiss features of trust, equality and precision. 

It may explain why the Swiss ‘tic’ a bit differently . . .