The Montgomery Dial Revolutionizes Railroad Timekeeping

Montgomery Dial

Montgomery Dial

Craig Duling researched the Montgomery watch dial history and found it to be a truly unique and valuable addition to pocket watch design especially among many of the railroads. It had certain innovations on the marginal minute design that made it one of the most popular watch dials of the time.

Red arrows shown on the picture point to the marginal minutes. Marginal minute dials are where each minute is numbered 1 through 60 in a complete ring around the outer edge of the dial’s face.  And each number has a baton marker next to it. There were quite a few marginal minute designs but the Montgomery watch dial seemed to be the top choice during those early days.

It was widely known as the Montgomery Safety Numerical Dial and it came into extended use even though many of the watch companies at the time were designing and promoting their own versions of the marginal minute dial. Craig Duling found published information that Henry S. Montgomery came up with his own unique design and began to employ it around 1920.

Henry S. Montgomery, at the time, was employed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. He served in the post of General Watch and Clock Inspector from 1896-1923. In 1920, Montgomery was awarded a patent for his marginal minute design that carried three marked differences from the other marginal minute designs that existed at the time.

That patent seems to no longer exist and has been lost to history but the story of the Montgomery dial comes down through particular writings and records that Montgomery meticulously compiled. The most prolific of Montgomery’s design enhancements included dial numbers that appeared upright (vertical). Prior to his design, marginal minutes were marked by way of slanted or arched radial numerals that slanted toward the center of the watch.

His second startling innovation was to make the numbers marking every five minutes larger than all of the others. In addition, on the Montgomery dial, the five minute numbers generally appear as red with the remaining numbers being the standard black. Again, because the patent has been lost to history it is unknown if the red number innovation was included in the patent.

Finally, Montgomery’s third unique design feature was that the sixth hour was clearly marked with a number. Most pocket watch dials don’t include the marking of the sixth hour so plainly due to the seconds bit (the subdial showing the second hand) being in the way. The Montgomery sixth hour marking is actually contained within the seconds bit.

The new Montgomery marginal minute dial watch made its appearance in 1900 on all Santa Fe Railway train station clocks and pocket watches worn by the train conductors.  It was soon becoming the standard for many other clocks at other train stations. The watch was in service on the AT&SF Railway in the latter part of 1899.  It soon came into wide use as early as 1906 and it was known as the AT&SF standard dial.

Craig Duling discovered that it wasn’t until around 1909 that the Montgomery innovation began being sold and actively promoted as a railroad specific time piece. At that time, both Hamilton and Elgin began producing Montgomery dial watches and began to advertise them widely for railroad use.

Furgenseen Dial

Furgenseen Dial

As the watch began to come into wide use, it was then, in 1910, that Webb C. Ball, founder of the Ball Watch Company, began his targeted assault on the both the Montgomery dial and another dial he equally hated, the Ferguson. The Ferguson dial accentuates the minutes and those numerals appear larger on the dial than those marking the hours. Ball took his campaign national and was determined to return to his beloved, and simple, dial of white with plain black numerals only.

In Ball’s appeal to such authorities as the National Safety Council and Railway Age magazine, Ball declared the dials to be impractical and confusing and championed his own Ball railroad time piece. It became a long running battle until 1922 when Ball died. However, his company, through his son, made a statement soon after his death that it had been many years since the Ball Watch Company objected to the existence of Montgomery or Ferguson dials.

Hamilton, Elgin, and the other major watch players tried to lay low during the Ball uprising against the two preferred dials. Ball always claimed that his watch dials were the standard on at least half of the railway companies in America. Elgin, Hamilton, and others, stood firmly behind the Montgomery dial and vigorously promoted it throughout the country as the quintessential railroad time piece dial. Most of the other watch companies’ “Montgomery” dials had been slightly altered in an effort, mainly, to escape paying any royalties to Montgomery.

Controversy seemed to follow the Montgomery watch even down to the present day. Prior to a 2009 controversy, the Montgomery Standard Numerical Dial was considered to be an official one if it contained the sixth hour clearly marked within the seconds bit. In 2009, however, Jeff Hess, a noted watch historian and researcher, as well as a NAWCC member for more than thirty years, proclaimed that the Montgomery Standard Numerical Dial, produced by Hamilton, was the official version of the dial. The Hamilton version, however, has no sixth hour numeral contained within the seconds bit. Hess pointed to an 18 size Hamilton dial, a Hamilton grade 940 with the serial number of 596882, as the true Montgomery Standard Numerical Dial.

Many historians and collectors, however, continue to champion the real version as one that has been clearly engraved “Montgomery Safety Dial Co.” In 1920, Montgomery decided to create another dial and it became known as the Type II Montgomery Dial. It seems that It was not all that popular because there are so few actually left in the hands of collectors today. Montgomery seemed to lean toward a more Ferguson like design for the Type II. The dial had very small hour numbers in a tight circle in the center of the dial with the marginal minute numerals taking a large center stage around the outer rim of the dial face.