Here’s how watches won over the West


From the 1830s thousands of miles of railroad tracks were laid across the United States and by the late 1860s the vast transcontinental railroad was completed, stretching from the east coast to the west. . As a fast way of travel at the time, it was unprecedented and the railroad companies uprooted the established transport order of the canal companies, stagecoach companies and innkeepers, all of whom saw their belongings. suffer while anyone in a hurry took the train.

With speed came risk, and as trains got faster, accidents multiplied. One in particular caused a complete overhaul of the way railway workers kept an eye on the clock. In April 1891, a high speed postal train was traveling along the railroad tracks near Kipton in rural Ohio. Suddenly the driver saw an oncoming passenger train. He applied the brakes but it was too late, the two trains collided and the mutilated horror of wood and metal claimed the lives of nine people.

The passenger train was supposed to stop on a siding to allow the mail train to pass, but a mechanic’s watch stopped for four minutes before restarting.

The railroad company hired a clockmaker and businessman called Webster Clay Ball to investigate the timing of its lines. He found that there was no uniformity at all and that many railway workers bought cheap and unreliable watches and “actually ran trains alongside them, risking human life and property.”

After his investigation, Mr. Ball developed a set of standards defining the requirements of a railway watch. It must have an open face, that is to say no metal cover like the pocket watches of yesteryear. The dial would be large and solid white, contrasting with bold black hands and Arabic numerals for maximum visibility. It is also said to have a movement of at least 17 jewels with a steel escapement accurate to plus or minus 30 seconds per week.

The rules were set out in the General Railroad Timepiece Standards and sent to railroad companies across America. The railwayman’s watch became an essential tool which, for reasons of life or death, prided itself on readability and reliability above all else. Running trains on time has become an essential part of the smooth running of the country and has opened up the West like never before.

For Mr. Ball, this also represented an opportunity. The astute businessman built his reputation as the czar of railway watchmaking and began selling watches under his own name. Its specialty, yes you guessed it, railroad watches. The company still bears his name and to this day has the Official Railroad Watch as its flagship piece.

Ball wasn’t the only one to profit from the railroad revolution. It was a boom time for the American watch industry before it finally lost ground to the Swiss in the 20th century. Hamilton was another American company that got involved right after it was founded in 1892 and marketed its own piece as the Watch of Railroad Accuracy. Hamilton is still in business today and although it is now Swiss-owned, the company does much of the big slice of Americana in its back catalog.

Taking the train is no longer the fastest way to cross America. And whatever your trip, you hope there are some more reliable security mechanisms than someone who remembers to check their watch. But the railway watch is still a symbol of a time when trains were a dangerously exciting way to travel. And judging by the number of companies that have continued to make railway style watches, there are still many people around the world who still feel that pioneer vibe.


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