On April 19, 1891, near Kipton, Ohio, a fast mail express traveling at full speed ran head-on into another train going in the opposite direction. Both were on the same track of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. Mail train No. 4 was going east. The other train, going west, had written instructions ordering it to sidetrack at Kipton, near Cleveland, to let the mail express pass. As the slower train was leaving Elyria, the telegraph operator there told the train’s conductor that the mail train was on schedule. Reportedly, the conductor took that reminder as an affront to his competence and apparently ignored it. Had he checked his watch with that of the train’s engineer, he would have discovered that the engineer’s watch had stopped for five minutes-probably due to some shock-and then been jolted back to life by another. The five-minute error was fatal.
The disastrous crash killed the engineers of both trains and nine others. In addition, there were large property losses to both railroads and to the U.S. Mail.
This wasn’t the first disaster resulting from watches used by train engineers, conductors or dispatchers. However, the Kipton incident was the catalyst that caused a sweeping investigation of the timepieces used by railroad personnel. It uncovered severe discrepancies in time-telling systems-discovering, among other things, that in some cases only cheap alarm clocks were used. Despite the institution of standard time, established in 1884 by the vast American railroad system, no standards had been set for watches used by conductors, engineers and dispatchers.
New and official standards created a whole different situation. Soon production standards for American watches were the envy of every mass-producing watch manufacturer the world over.
A name to note: One of the most highly respected watch inspectors for railroads was Webb C. Ball of Cleveland, who was in charge of watch inspection for more than 125,000 miles of track. He set many standards, among them those for size, jeweling and the watch’s ability to be accurate within 30 seconds a week in five different positions (face up or down on a night table and various different positions within the owner’s pockets). New standards also required factory adjustments to allow a watch to keep accurate time in a temperature range from 40′ to 90′ Fahrenheit.
Engineers and conductors were issue rule books to guide them on the choice, inspection, maintenance and performance of approved watches and strict standards of precision were required in each area. The prime rule involved understanding Standard Time and where and how it was obtained.
All those associated with the operation of a railroad had to have such a watch and manufacturers soon noticed how those owning them greatly admired their appearance and working features. Thus they obligingly added decoration to please the owners further.
In these earlier days many men were technically very well versed. In buying a car, for example, a man would spend as much time examining the engine as the appearance. Likewise, he was familiar with watch adjustments, jewels and other such details. Since watch manufacturers took it for granted that a buyer would examine the movement of his projected purchase, they decorated movements with intricate geometric engine turning of its plates and bridges (incorrectly called “damaskeening”), provided screwed-in, lapped gold jewel settings and highly-polished steel work. They even decorated ratchet and crown wheels with beautiful engraving of the company’s logo and the serialized production number of the particular watch. Each number was kept in the company’s records.
There were almost as many firms making watch cases as those making the watches themselves. Because watch sizes were standard, there was no problem matching movements and cases. Thus the jeweler stocked them separately. A customer would look at both and ponder whether his taste and budget would prefer a highly-jeweled movement and a non-so-expensive case, or vice versa.
Matching up: I remember when my father-watchmaker operated a small shop in Brooklyn. He would send me to a nearby watch case factory – of which there were quite a few – to buy a solid gold case, pictured in the firm’s colored catalog and chosen by his waiting customer. Those visits bring sharp memories of floors with hand engravers side by side chasing, carving and engraving these cases.
Then I would run back and it took my father less than a minute to insert the movement into the case.
The case didn’t have to be gold. The railroads accepted gold filled, silver and nickel; their only demand was that the case comply with their requirements, be dust-proof and sturdy with a mineral glass cover for the dial side.
Some ornate cases had a locomotive motif engraved on the back. Others had an empty shield to be filled later with hand engraved, and ornate, gift lettering or a monograph of initials of the owner.
Sometimes a special order was executed to indicate the owner’s pet hobby, special profession or business. Some cheap imitations had a railroad scene on the dial (prohibited in railroad-approved watch dials) and case in an attempt to capitalize on the status of the genuine, accepted railroad watch.
Famous logos: After a time, Webb C. Ball went into business for himself, commissioning some of the better American manufacturers to alter some of their better railroad models to his standards. The commissioned timepieces carried Ball’s trademark, but experienced watch collectors can recognize easily the company that actually produced particular models.
Today, various railroad pocket watches with the [Webb C.] Ball logos bring higher prices than those marked only with the Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin, Hampden, Howard and Illinois names. The very rare, and desirable, single Seth Thomas model with the Ball logo-commissioned by the Cleveland inspector-merchant-are much sought after.
Another influential railroad inspector was R. D. Montgomery. He was chief inspector of the Sante Fe Railway system, who in the 1915-’20 period introduced and patented his dial marking system. This dial had all 60 minutes printed in small numerals on the outside circumference of the minute track. Also, the figure 6 appeared inside the small seconds dial.
Those of his watches intended for the Canadian market had the figures 13 through 24 printed on a circle smaller than the minute track. Such watches had to be adjusted to even greater precision, not too great a task since technology and advances in metallurgy were keeping pace with these demands.
A matter of pride: American makers of approved railroad watches met the challenge of producing precise, durable timepieces with an excellence not approached in mass production anywhere else in the world. Their proud owners knew they possessed the most precise instrument of its time.
No watch made elsewhere could match the finish, lapped gold jewel settings, the steelwork also lapped to a high mirror gloss nor the beautiful, intricate geometric patterns of the plates, bridges and winding wheels and the finish of the screw-heads and regulators. It seems that no two watches, even from the same factory, had the same designs on these plates and bridges.
Even today, it is easy to understand and share the admiration the owners felt for such timepieces.
Mass production, but big dollars: The quality watches produced by many companies totaled in the many millions. Most have not survived the gold-selling stampedes of the Depression years. The jeweler today probably has the best opportunity to acquire such pieces-when offered for sale or as trade-in barter for new, fine quality wrist watches.
Like everything else, some railroad watches are more collectible and desirable than others. Company names such as Hamilton, Howard and the [Webb C.] Ball logo bring strong offers. Watches with jewel counts of 19, 21 and 23 are sought with greater zeal than those with lower counts. An “Up and Down” indicator, which informs the wearer how much reserve power is left in his watch, is another great plus with collectors.
Railroad watches with more than 23 jewels are rare and fetch premium prices. Illinois and Rockford both produced watches with 24 and 25 jewels; some of the 24-jewel models are appraised in current price guides at between $2,000 and $3,000. The Illinois 25jewel Bunn Special is currently listed at $10,000. The 26-jewel “Benjamin Franklin U.S.A.” is estimated to bring $6,000 to $8,000.
The Seth Thomas Maiden Lane model, with 28 jewels, is about the rarest in this category and currently is appraised at between $15,000 and $25,000.
A comprehensive story of the American railroad watch would require an encyclopedic volume which, of this writing, does not exist. For starters, however, the would-be collector-dealer should obtain at least two prime books-the Official Price Guide to Watches, 10th Edition, by Cooksey Shugart and Tom Engle and American Pocket Watches, Identification and Price Guide, Beginning to End, by Roy Ehrhardt and William Meggars. Both are obtainable through JCK’s Book Club.
From time to time the Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors publishes authoritative articles on railroad watches by recognized authorities and researchers. The association’s Mart, a looseleaf publication, lists many pages covering services, buy and sell ads and notices of regional meetings and auctions. TECHNICAL FACTS
Standards set by Webb C. Ball and by the railroads themselves demanded incredible time-keeping performance and governed every aspect of watch technology including size, accuracy, tolerance to differing temperatures and construction.
The emphasis was on reliability; these watches had to be able to stand rough and constant treatment without compromising their time-keeping ability.
The stringency of the standards applied to all parts. To be approved for railroad use, the watch had to contain a jeweled lever escapement, steel escape wheel and its balance had to employ the double roller. The old single roller system was prone to allow over-banking (a malfunction that causes the watch to stop) during shocks, jamming the watch-a probable reason why the engineer’s watch in the Kipton disaster stopped and then started again.
There were firm rules on how to set the hands. Earlier investigations found that when the owner pulled the watch from his pocket, the crown sometimes was inadvertently pulled into the handsetting position. With the hands free to move, the correct time could be lost without the owner’s realizing it.
New standards stuhrling watches review quality demanded that all approved watches be equipped with a lever setting. This required the user to unscrew the bezel and then use a thumbpiece lever to set the hands manually. Some watches even used a stirrup bow with a bar across the top of the crown to prevent accidental extension into a setting position.
Dials had to be made of porcelain or metal with bold Arabic numbers and sturdy blued-steel hands.
In researching collectible railroad watches, many technical terms will come up. Here’s a partial glossary:
Breguet hairspring. Named after Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823), who originated the idea of taking the last outer coil of the hairspring and raising it above the lower level. He then made this last overcoil into a smaller diameter than the main, lower body of coils. This permitted the main level to expand and contract evenly.
The procedure not only diminished the side thrusting of the balance spring; it also overcame the influences of a fullywound mainspring and an almost-unwound one on the time of the watches (see also isochronism).
Double-sunk dial. Mainly a porcelain dial composed of three layers. The minute track was printed on the uppermost layer, which accommodated the minute hand. The hour numerals and hand were on a lower level and the seconds dial and hand appeared on a sunk dial. The arrangement insured that one hand would not interfere with another and stop the watch.
Double roller. An upright jewel is, set into a roller on the lower post of the balance’s staff. It receives a delicate but whip-like impulse from the jeweled lever to keep the balance oscillating. In times of severe shock, the whip-like thrust may trip prematurely and jam the watch works. One major improvement was the introduction of the double roller, which became mandatory in railroad watches. Many included the legend “double roller” on their movements to enhance their acceptance. By the 1930s, all jeweled lever watches had double rollers’
Isochronism. An adjustment that diminishes the influence of fully-wound or almost-unwound mainspring on the timekeeping. The adjustment is effected by employment of a Breguet hairspring (see above).
Lever setting. In an ordinary pocket or wrist watch the time is set by pulling out the winding crown. Because the crown might be pulled out accidentally, the railroads demanded that approved watches be equipped with a system that by-passed the winding crown. The lever setting was accomplished by unscrewing the front bezel, revealing a streamlined thumbnail piece. This was pulled out and used to place the setting wheels in the handsetting mode. Then the winding crown could be turned to place the hands in the exact time position.
Micrometer regulator. Moving the tail of the regulator by hand invited numerous uncertainties. The micrometer adjustment allowed advancing or retracting the regulator by microscopic units.
Motor barrel. An alternate way to prevent the shearing of teeth in the train of wheels should the steel mainspring break suddenly, causing a violent backsurge of power.
Position adjustments. To improve timekeeping, watch balances had to poised so that, on a balancing tool, no one part of the rim was heavier than any other. Despite the adjustor’s best efforts, microscopic, undetected errors in poising multiplied by 432,000, the number of ticks in a day) could result in five basic positions-three edge positions in the wearer’s pocket and dial-up or dial-down on a night table. After testing akribos brand review the watch in all five positions, the adjustor would adjust the balance, hairspring and balance pivots to neutralize any positional errors.
Safety pinion. All railroad watches before 1935 had steel mainsprings, which were subject to breakage. A break caused a tremendous release of power in the opposite direction, causing wheel teeth to be shorn. The safety pinion was invented to correct this situation. It was threaded on to the center wheel’s arbor in such a direction that, should the mainspring break, the reverse surge would cause this pinion to unscrew itself from the arbor, spinning harmlessly until the surging power was spent.
Temperature adjustment. This adjustment concerns the balance and its mainspring. Before the invention of Invar, a metal which does not appreciably expand in heat or contract in cold, the hairspring in watches was made of tempered steel. In heat, such springs would lose some of their tensile strength as well as becoming slightly longer. Both would cause a loss in time. Conversely, in cold the spring would get stiffer and shorter, causing a gain in time. To compensate for these changes, watch balances were composed of two metals-a thin inner steel rim and a thicker outer brass rim welded to it. The ends of these rims were then split. The different thicknesses and expansion rates of the two metals cause their rims to curve inward in heat and outward in cold, compensating for the hairspring’s opposite behavior.
Mr. Fried is horological editor of JCK and a long-established expert in horology. He has written many books on horological matters and has spoken on his favorite subject in many countries.