Weltzeituhr at Alexanderplatz 1972: it was built where construction workers found the remains of anoher chronometer, the 19th-century Urania-Säule.

What do one of the Berlin’s most popular meeting points, the old GDR clock in Alexanderplatz and the official colossus of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – whose 272nd birthday we celebrated in August 2021 – have in common? The answer is colours.

Let us begin with the clock. The Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock), a nearly 10-metre edifice of sixteen tonnes, designed by Erich John and made by members of a devoted brigade from VEB ROW (Rathenower Optische Werke or Optical Works Rathenow) and a blacksmith artist, Hans Joachim Kunsch, was – along Germany’s tallest building, the Fernsehturm – the government’s present to the People of the German Democratic Republic. Both objects were completed in 1969, in time to celebrate the state’s twentieth birthday, and soon became focal points of East Berlin’s landscape. Winds of change blew, states collapsed (or got re-united, depending on the perspective), the People have moved on or away but the Weltzeituhr, officially unveiled on September 30th, 1969, still is a favourite meeting point for many Berliners.

Its column supports a large cylinder with 24 faces: one per each time zone of the Earth. The Weltzeituhr shows minutes through the rotation of the planetary system installed on top of the cylinder: one full rotation per minute. Interestingly (and rather endearingly, too), the planets are held in motion by an old, adjusted Trabant transmission mechanism – Trabant was a popular, inexpensive East German car make. The mechanism responsible for the rotation of the hour ring, originally powered by an old GDR electro-engine, was replaced by a gear engine in 1997. The clock´s “machine room” is hidden in a 5 x 5 metres chamber directly under the chronometer.

Weltzeituhr in Alexanderplatz, July 1980 (image by C. Wolf, Bundesarchiv).

To read the hours, you have to look at the hour ring visible through the openings in the main cylinder. Interestingly, the gear engine propels the ring hour of the clock slightly faster than the actual time lapse (five percent faster, to be exact). Each hour system of twelve cams installed on the ring turns the engine off for exactly three minutes to allow the signal from a DCF77 transmitter in Mainflingen, near Frankfurt am Main, to adjust the time to that shown by the federal atomic clock. This way the Weltzeituhr will not accumulate what is known as runtime error. In other words, it will not be running late.

But back to the Goethe connection. Each of the Weltzeituhr‘s 24 hour ring faces has a different colour, producing a sequence of elegantly changing hues. And that is where Goethe comes into play. These colours are not simply pretty: they represent something known as the Goethe’scher Farbkreis, Goethe’s colour wheel.

The changing hues of the ring hour in a 2015 photo by Christian Wolf, www.c-w-design.de.

Next to Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther and many other masterpieces of literature, Goethe also produced a 1810 volume called Theory of Colours”, or Farblehre. Funnily enough, it was this book that he himself considered to be his most important work. In fact, his friend and private secretary, Johann Eckermann, recalled him saying, in a manner which some still might consider as bordering on haughty: “As to what I have done as a poet… I take no pride in it… but that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours—of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.” (Gespräche mit Goethe, 1836-48, translated by John Oxenford).

Briefly speaking, Goethe’s Farbkreis represents six colours (in a rather controversial move, the German poet thought nothing of the white light and seven-primary-colours theory of Newton’s). Each of those – with yellow and blue being the only pure, or primary, colours and everything else simply representing a different degree of those – stands for certain qualities labelled by the author as “beautiful” (red), “noble” (orange), “good” (yellow), “useful” (green), “common” (blue) and “unnecessary” (magenta or purple).

Goethe´s Farbkreis

As you can see, Goethe was not so much into the physical nature of light, into the optical spectrum, as into our perception of it. His chromatic scale was arranged according to what he called “natural order” – colours “diametrically opposed to each other are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye”. In Goethe’s eyes, yellow “demands” violet, orange needs blue to present itself at its purest, purple stands opposite green and simple colours are matched by compounds.

Those compounds can again be divided into four categories, each of which represents one form of human cognition: Vernunft (rationality), Verstand (intellect), Sinnlichkeit (sensuality) and Phantasie (imagination). The latter, for instance, can be found on the border between red and purple – it is both “beautiful” and “unnecessary”. To learn more about Goethe´s understanding of how colours influence us and how we see them, read this highly informative text by Maria Popova on brainpicker.com. A word of warning, however: Newton would have minded.

Without diving too deep into details of Goethe´sche Farblehre, two numbers stick out immediately: six (six colours) and four (four categories of human cognition). When multiplied, they produce precisely the number of hours in one day-night cycle. And that is exactly what the Weltzeituhr would show, each hue standing for one hour.

So it is not only the Welzeituhr´’s rich history but also its endlessly fascinating, intricate construction that makes it so interesting to all fans and visitors, so dear to the hearts of those who use it to meet their dates. The latter group never seem to be bored, no matter how long the wait: they are too busy studying the 146 city names, carved into the 24 faces of the aluminium cylinder above them in a font designed by Erich John’s wife, artist Brigitta-Maria John.

So if you should ever find yourself standing under that clock, waiting for someone who is running late, try to look at it as not a wasted half an hour but as an opportunity to forward yourself. To give some deep thought to Goethe’s theory, to study the optical spectrum of his Farbkreis and to enjoy the thought that thanks to this clever product of the leading DDR engineering you have something that´’s more precious than most other things: you, dear reader, have all the time in the world.

A miniature replica of the Weltzeituhr presented a 60th-birthday gift to Erich Honnecker by the VEB Narva Berliner Glühlampenwerk in 1972.