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The Railroad Watch

June 2024
2min read

The fifteen-jewel Hampden Rail-Way watch on the facing page was made in 1877, one of the first timepieces marketed specifically to the railroad trade. Wound and set with a small key, the watch features a high-quality, adjusted nickeldamascened movement. While a delicate watch may seem to share little with the great wheels, rods, and pistons of a thundering steam locomotive, the watch and railway industries grew together and depended on each other.

Until about 1850 watchmaking was an inconsequential industry in America. In the eighteenth century a very few American makers imported unfinished European movements and finished them according to their customers’ needs. About 1810 craftsmen began creating whole watches based on European models, but innovations were few and numbers low. Then two developments helped turn watchmaking into a major business: the refinement of mass-production techniques and the expansion of railroads.

Many industries required careful time-keeping, but only for railroads was it literally a matter of life and death. Clearly, trains traveling on the same track must have some means of avoiding each other. In the days before the telegraph and for many years after, railroads averted collisions by synchronizing the clocks in each station and keeping a two- to ten-minute gap between trains.

At first watches were much less reliable than clocks, but trainmen kept them as accurate as possible by daily checks against the company’s “master clock.” In the late 180Os officials adopted industrywide standards for the manufacture of railroad watches, a development that produced some of the finest and most accurate American timepieces ever produced.

Unlike the cheaply made watches of the era, railroad watches were designed to keep accurate time whether they were stem up, stem down, dial up, or dial down. Moreover, they had to be able to compensate for changes in temperature and to run at the same speed whether they were fully wound or almost stopped. The promise of these precision adjustments seemed to capture the imagination of buyers far removed from the railroad industry. “So perfectly is this watch made,” ran a 1910 advertisement for the South Bend company, “that it remains accurate even when carried continually in the jolting, swaying, bounding cab of the great passenger moguls that pull the famous ‘20th Century Limited’ between New York and Chicago.” Just imagine, the ad went on, “how accurately a Studebaker model South Bend would run for you after being adjusted to your personality by an expert retail jeweler.”

It symbolizes a time when the smooth running of the trains and of the nation seemed inextricably intertwined.

Jewel counts added to the railroad watch’s appeal. A Swiss watchmaker had introduced the practice of using jewels as bearing surfaces in 1705. Hard, smooth, and corrosion-resistant, jewels are useful materials for bushings at the ends of pivots and pallet stones on the escapement mechanism. These jewels included quartz, garnet, and chrysolite, and in better-grade watches, rubies, sapphires, and occasionally diamonds. The fifteen rubies in the example illustrated here were a mark of a high-grade watch of its time.

Opinion differs on the optimum number of jewels in a watch. Some of the most accurate watches of all time, marine chronometers, had only eleven. Still, high jewel counts made good advertising copy, and manufacturers began to pack them in regardless of whether they were of any practical use. In 1893 the railroads set standards specifying a minimum of seventeen jewels, and soon watches of twenty-three to twenty-eight jewels were being produced, even though it was difficult to figure out where to put that many.

While millions of railroad-quality watches were sold, the number was small in relation to the approximately 275 million pocket watches made in America. Railroad watches were not inexpensive; a high-grade model in a coin silver or gold-filled case cost anywhere from $25 to $50 in the late nine-teenth century—roughly the price of a kitchen stove. By 1920 an extra-quality railroad-grade watch in a solid-gold case cost approximately $180, more than half the cost of a Model T Ford.

The era of the American railroad pocket watch lasted almost exactly one hundred years. The last model was manufactured in the mid-1960s, by which time automated signals had made the need for highly accurate watches less critical. Today the pocket watch survives as a symbol of a time when the smooth running of the railroad and of the nation seemed inextricably intertwined, a time just arriving when Thoreau wrote Walden . The trains, he observed then, “go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well conducted institution regulates a whole country.”

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