The Value and Significance of the Railroad Watch by Paul Duling

Among collectors, the railroad watch has come to have a special significance, charm and lasting value. The continued attraction of railroad watches remains strong due to their esteemed value and romantic dignity. Since the railroad watch is a time piece of exacting precision, historical significance and graceful aesthetics, it has long been coveted and revered by watch collectors.

Prior to watches, or even clocks, people just tended to mark the time by the rising and setting of the sun. The importance of time began to take on greater significance as America lurched into the Industrial Age. It was the railroad industry, however, that made time a compelling issue. America’s railroads were an integral cog in the emerging great American machine. Moving passengers and freight was, soon, big business and adhering to certain time requirements became a crucial tool by which profit was measured.

Watches soon became standard for railroad personnel, especially conductors. Watch specifications tended to vary among railroad companies. The watches were known as “standard watches” because those watches met certain railway requirements and standards. The “standard watch” used at one railroad company, however, could be quite different from another used at a competing railroad company.

In the early developmental years, the railroads used a time system that approximated local arrival times and generally went by the rule of thumb of how far out, time wise, the train was from its destination. In the early 1850’s, The Erie railroad began defining its “time interval system” by declaring that “a ruling train had right of one hour against the opposing train of the same class.”

As the industry began to take on a more significant role in American life and commerce, railroads began to realize that Erie’s “time interval system” was not going to be sufficient to ensure that the trains could meet their tight delivery schedules. As rules evolved, railroad companies began issuing their own standard watches for their rail personnel. In the early 1850’s, the Boston and Providence railroad company issued 45 English made watches from Boston’s Bond & Son. In 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad made watches a standard tool on their lines and issued a company protocol that stated: “Each engineer will be furnished with a watch which shall be regulated by the Station Agent at the commencement of each trip and must be deposited with him when the engine returns. If not returned in as good order as it was received, the Engineer must pay the expense of repairs.” Conductors, however, were responsible for securing their own railroad watches.

At Noon on November 18, 1883, time in America, and, eventually, the world, changed forever. The railroad companies agreed to, and launched, what they referred to as Standard Railway Time. As soon as this standard went in to affect, most American cities, and many towns, began to scramble in an effort to keep up. Most adopted their own special protocols and these actions soon led to the establishment of officially recognized time zones in the United States.

There were four time zones established in the country with each sporting a one hour time difference. They became known as Eastern Standard Time, Central Daylight Time, Mountain Standard Time and Pacific Daylight Time. The new time zones were generally embraced by everyone throughout the country even though these new time zones were created specifically to accommodate the railroad companies.

Before Standard Railway Time went into affect, everyone was hard pressed to coordinate efforts and schedules. The railroads, and later the importance of the newly invented telegraph, had made the standardization of time, and its accompanying precision, a national imperative. As America’s industrialization and emergence as a world power continued to rumble on, time became the central focus in daily life as well as in commerce.

Standard Railway Time was calculated and designed with several factors taken into consideration. The major factors considered were distance between major cities, geography in general and the demographics of a certain populations. In addition, a one hour solar time difference comes into being with every fifteen degrees of longitude. The meridian count began with Greenwich, England and progressed, by fifteen degrees, around the world. Eventually there would be twenty-four world meridians with Greenwich being at the center as the “prime” meridian.

Establishing some manner of standardized time had been long advocated by certain scientists including meteorologists and astronomers. In fact, the American Meteorological Society had published its findings, in 1881, on the advantages of establishing some sort of standard time throughout the country. This report led the American railroad industry to sanction the findings which then led to the establishment of Standard Railway Time.

In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held to standardize time throughout the world. Greenwich was chosen as the prime meridian because England’s fabled Royal Observatory was located there and by the fact that Greenwich was used by a vast majority of the seafaring world as well as international mapmakers. It was decided that somewhere had to be chosen because longitude did not have any obvious middle measuring point as latitude does with the Equator.

Prior to 1887, there were really no national watch standards in existence in America. In the 1850’s and 1860’s all critical railroad personnel were ordered to carry watches and these included conductors, engineers and even switch yard controllers. While “railroad standard” specifications remained flexible, they, often, went quickly out of date from year to year. Each railroad company had their own watch specifications and usually employed a watchmaker to inspect them and to certify that they were acceptable for general use at the particular railroad company. Finally, in 1897, The American Railway Association held a summit and set forth certain standards and protocols that were to be put into general use throughout the country. Confusion and division continued to reign as many railroad companies refused to adopt the new guidelines.

Until the 1890’s, the standard railroad watch was, for the most part, an 18 size, 15 jewel timepiece that was adjusted to only three positions. Some set them to what they considered to be “all” positions but, again, confusion and dissension came to the fore as “all” could not be uniformly defined as either five positions or six. Again, positions varied but three seemed to be the adopted middle ground. Despite all of the clamoring, the new American Railway Association guidelines were, at least, a step in the right direction with regard to trying to standardize railroad watches.

Everything changed, however, on April 19, 1891. It was on that day that two trains collided in a tremendous accident that rendered 9 casualties. The fatal crash happened between trains of the Michigan Southern Railway and the Lake Shore Railway. It occurred just outside of Cleveland in Kipton, Ohio. The collision, upon investigation, was caused when an engineer’s watch had ceased to function. New national timekeeping standards would soon come in to place as the legendary watchmaker, Webb C. Ball, was brought in by the railroads to be their Chief Time Inspector.

Webb C. Ball, jeweler and founder of the Ball Watch Company, now located in Switzerland, hailed from Cleveland, Ohio and was instrumental to bringing extraordinarily accurate time to Cleveland. Ball used time signals coming from the United States Naval Observatory to synchronize the time for Cleveland.

Following the pivotal train collision of 1891, Webb went immediately to work establishing time and watch standards. He wanted the railroad watches to be reliable and made of as sturdy a material as possible. He set out to create timepieces that adjusted to five positions, were unaffected by the effects of magnetism, had isochronism power reserve and a dial arrangement.

Webb C. Ball eventually became the chief time inspector for the entire railroad industry. His standards were adopted by other watchmakers. By the end of his illustrious career, he was responsible for over 100,000 miles of track throughout all of North America. In 1921, as chairman of the Hamilton Watch Company, he was honored as an honorary brother in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. In addition, he introduced the first official standard wrist watch to the railroad industry. Its winding movement was Swiss and was quickly adopted as the standard railroad watch up and down North America.

Watchmaker Dueber-Hampden created a new industry standard in 1891 when it began to manufacture an 18 size, 17 jewel timepiece. Other watchmakers such as Columbus and Bunn were right on their proverbial heels with releases of 16 jewel time pieces. The Columbus watch was dubbed the Railway King and all of these watches were heavily advertised and promoted. In fact, Columbus ceased production on all of its watches save for its 16 jewel “jewel”.
The popularity of these new watches soon took its financial toll on the standard 15 jewel models. Many jewelers ended up stuck with huge inventories of 15 jewel watches that they simply could not move. Most watchmakers adapted by adding jewels to the 15’s. For instance, watchmaker Waltham began to re-tool it 15 jewel ‘83 models that they could not move. They inserted an upper and lower jewel and remarketed the watches as 17 jewel time pieces. This was right after the successful launch of their Vanguard Model ’92 17 jewel masterpiece.

But even these wonderful 17 jewel watches couldn’t compete with the new 21 jewel watches that were beginning to be introduced at the end of the nineteenth century. As the twentieth century dawned and thundered forward, the 21 jewel time pieces began to take precedence. The first twenty-five years of the twentieth century saw an explosion and proliferation of standard watches which has provided a wide array and choice for the serious collector.

Even the long enduring 18 size watch that had served the industry well for so many decades was now making way for the new 16 size that had begun to emerge in force during the first quarter of the twentieth century. They had become so popular that the Hamilton company, in just a couple of short years, sold more than 100,000 of these new watches. As the 16 size proliferated, and worked its way to becoming the new standard, new protocols were also being introduced. Webb C. Ball had carried the load and run with the gauntlet for a long time but new and stronger guidelines emerged.

In the early part of the twentieth century, these new standards were developed:

– Only American designed and produced watches could be used in the railroad industry.
– They were to have open faced dial designs with the winding stem poised at 12.
– They could be the 18 or 16 size but had to contain at least 17 jewels.
– They had to be adjusted to at least five positions with a top line variation of just thirty seconds per weekly inspection.
This was a daily variation of just four seconds.
– They had to be temperature compensated and lever set.
– The indicators had to highly legible and preferably bold. They had to Arabic numerals with heavy hands, and every minute had to be marked.
– The watches had to be fitted with a steel escape wheel, a double roller, a plain white dial and a patented regulator.
– The watches had to be resistant to magnetism.

By the time World War II arrived, 23 jewel watches had begun to make an appearance and were soon in heavy usage. In the earlier part of the century, Canadian railroads used mostly Swiss produced watches. Most of the watches that are collected are from this early twentieth century time period. The South Bend Company had actually introduced an insurance plan in the early nineteen teens because railroad watches had evolved with such standard and exacting adopted requirements. The industry, it seemed, had stabilized to a great degree.

By 1930, the 18 size was no longer the standard railroad watch and even 17 jewel watches were beginning to be ushered out of the American railroad lines. Despite all of this movement, 18 size, 17 jewel railroad watches could still remain in use if they met the 30 second per week new standard. Also during the 1940’s, the railroads began to focus on only certain watches that contained specific minimum serial numbers. Diesel locomotives were fast becoming the norm, and tended to generate huge magnetic fields, which is why the anti-magnetic focus had so come into prominence.

Following the Second World War, there were just a small handful of standard watches accepted for use on American railroads. These were the Elgin grade 571 B.W. Raymond, the Hamilton 992B and the Ball 999B as well as the Waltham grade 1623 Hamilton. Swiss timepieces began to appear in the 1950’s with the adoption of the Record Watch Company’s calibers 435, 435B and its 435C. Prior to this, a Swiss watch had not made an American appearance in over fifty years. Record’s watches were also a significant entry due to the fact that they had an Incabloc anti-shock system. No other standard watch had such a system at the time.

The Hamilton Company ended up manufacturing the final standard railroad watch in the country with its legendary 992B. Hamilton sold over a half million of them and it was only outsold by their 992 model.