History of Pocket Watches

Quintessential of the early American railroad is the enduring image of a handsomely-suited train conductor dutifully looking down at his pocket watch. Even more important than appreciating its symbolic significance is to acknowledge that the operation of entire North American railroad system relied upon the railroad pocket watch to orchestrate its expanding network of interconnecting tracks.


Before a train would leave the station, its conductor would check his pocket watch against the clock at the depot – just like the engineer in the locomotive at the front of the train had done.  Beginning with the incorporation of first American railroad in 1826, railroad dispatchers, conductors, enginemen, brakemen, and yard foremen were all required to carry approved railroad grade pocket watches (although until 1893, there were no consistent guidelines that qualified a pocket watch as railroad grade).  Each railway set its own timepiece performance standards and oversaw routine accuracy inspections.  While many pocket watches were represented by manufacturers as railroad grade, the designation was meaningless, since individual railroads would determine whether or not to approve a particular watch, irrespective of its labeling.

During the early years of American railroading, trains commonly traveled in opposite directions along a shared single track, a practice called single-tracking.  Sidings were provided at various intervals along the line to allow trains moving in opposite directions to pass one another.  In order to prevent collisions between opposing trains and to ensure efficient train movement across the tracks, each railroad published a schedule, called a timetable, which specified train arrival and departure times at every station, as well as the intervals at which a train would pull into and out of the sidings.


Until the advent of the telegraph in the 1840’s, there was no way for train conductors and depot dispatchers to communicate while a train was moving.  Upon introducing the telegraph into routine railway operations; however, a depot dispatcher was able to notify appropriate train crew members of an unanticipated timetable disruption by issuing a train order.  Instructions in a train order always took priority over the published timetable, as well as authorized necessary logistical accommodations, such as the cancellation, rescheduling, or addition of trains to the schedule; or clearance for a train to occupy a block or section of track.


By 1860, railroad companies in the Northeast and Midwest had linked nearly every major U.S. city that lay within the reach of their tracks.  The invention of the electrical track circuit in the 1870’s led to the use of block signals, which enhanced the speed, safety and efficiency of railroading.  Also in the 1870’s, mechanical interlockings, which prevented conflicting movements at rail junctions and crossings, were introduced to the U.S. after their initial development in Britain.


As the railroads grew to accommodate increasingly demanding schedules on heavily crowded tracks, they were also forced to adapt their schedules to over 50 different time zones that were independently and arbitrarily observed by various cities and towns across the country.  Despite the technological improvements of the previous three decades, navigation through the complex interconnecting rail system had become unwieldy and hazardous.  In 1883, responding to the steadily rising accident rate, the railroad industry declared four distinct time zones of operation:  Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific.  (In 1918, U.S. Congress signed the railroad time zone system into law, and it became the new national standard.)   With the adoption of standard time zones, railroad safety and efficiency improved; but as the unfolding of history would tragically reveal, a new challenge lay ahead for the railroad industry.


On April 18, 1891, a devastating head-on collision occurred between a U.S. Postal Service fast mail train and a passenger train along the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad at Kipton, Ohio, located 40 miles west of Cleveland.  At the moment of impact, the fast mail train was running at full speed while the passenger train was under brakes preparing for its approach into the siding (in accordance with a train order that granted railway priority to the fast mail train).  The catastrophe, which claimed nine lives, made headlines across the country.  A subsequent investigation, led by respected Cleveland jeweler Webster C. Ball, traced the cause of the accident to a faulty pocket watch that belonged to the engineer of the passenger train.  Apparently, the passenger train engineer’s watch had stopped and restarted, rendering it four minutes slow. Those four minutes proved to be fatal.


In the aftermath of the 1891 Kipton disaster, railroad officials appointed Webster Ball as head of the General Railroads Timepiece Standards Commission, which immediately convened following the accident to establish industry-wide railroad pocket watch performance guidelines.  (Ball was uniquely qualified to preside over the commission.  Upon the implementation of railroad standard time zones in 1883, he had been the first jeweler to incorporate time signals from the United States Naval Observatory as a clock-setting reference.)


In 1893, under Ball’s leadership, the following General Railroad Timepiece Standards were instituted for North America, requiring that all pocket watches used for railroad timekeeping meet the following criteria:
  • Be American made
  • Size 18 or 16
  • Open face (no cover)
  • Fitted with 17 or more jewels
  • Configured with winding stem at 12 o’clock
  • Temperature-compensated for accuracy from 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Plain white-faced dial with:
                      Bold black Arabic numerals
                      Bold black hands
                      Each minute delineated

  • Adjusted to 5 positions
  • Lever set (to prevent accidental time adjustment while winding)
  • Equipped with:
                      Double roller
                      Micrometric regulator
                      Steel escape wheel

  • Verified accurate to within 30 seconds/week and inspected regularly

Establishing these universal requirements helped to ensure that railroad pocket watches would be uniform in design; easy-to-read; impervious to extreme temperature swings; and reliable under conditions of jarring, swaying, or changes in position.
Following the adoption of the 1893 General Railroad Timepiece Standards, the railroad industry produced a set of operating specifications for watchmakers to follow.  Major pocket watch manufacturers, including Elgin, Waltham, Illinois, and Hamilton, began producing railroad pocket watches in compliance with the 1893 specifications.
Although minimum standards for railroad-grade pocket watches continued to evolve as timekeeping technology advanced, older pocket watches were “grandfathered” as acceptable provided that they met the standards in effect when they were first put into service, and that they were regularly inspected to verify accuracy to within 30 seconds/week.