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LATEST ARTICLE_______________________________________

All Aboard for Railroad Pocket Watches
by Bob Brooke

 

On April 19, 1891, a train engineer's watch stopped for four minutes and then started again. This temporary mechanical failure resulted in a train wreck that killed nine people in Kipton, Ohio. The railroads set up a commission to create new standards for the railroad pocket watch, to be used by all railroads.

A railroad grade pocket watch is simply a watch that was approved by a particular railroad organization for use by engineers and conductors on their line. But the specific definition of “railroad grade” evolved quite a bit over the years.

The commission required engineers to have their watches inspected regularly and to submit a certificate stating its reliability to supervisors. When there was only one track for trains barreling in both directions, being on time was a matter of life and death. As the Kipton wreck proved, an engineer's railroad pocket watch being off by as little as four minutes could mean disaster.

The new standards dictated that a railroad pocket watch have at least 15 jewels. After 1886, the number of jewels increased. They also had to be accurate to within 30 seconds per week. They also had to have a white face, although the railroads allowed silvered faces until around 1910second decade of the 20th century); black Arabic numbers each minute delineated; size 16 or 18; adjusted to five positions; and temperature compensated. (Canadian RR watches, on the other hand, had Roman numerals and an inner ring of Arabic numerals from 13-24 for the p.m. hours.)

The rules were sometimes broken so you can still find a RR watch with Roman numerals. The last two requirements were critical. As the early watchmakers discovered, not only would cold and heat cause the movement to slow or speed up, but so did the watch's position. Imagine trying to carry a watch in one position all the time, especially while working on a train. Railroad watches had to stand up to constant abuse from the jarring and swaying of early trains.

Pocket watch sizes run from 0 to 23. This doesn’t refer to its width or length or casing. It’s actually refers to the size of the movement. To meet railroad requirements, a watch's movement must be a size 16 (1 7/10 inches) or a size 18 (1 23/30inches).

What is a Railroad Pocket Watch?
And, contrary to common belief, there were many regulations in place before Webb C. Ball was commissioned by railroad officials in the 1890’s to create an overarching set of railroad watch qualifiers.

Before the 1890’s, and until the entire railroad industry accepted Ball’s standards, different railroads had different qualifiers. One line may have had a list of accepted makes and models while another may have only listed necessary features or timekeeping performance thresholds. This makes evaluating older watches as railroad grade a difficult task, because a watch may have met the standards of one company but not another.

As the rail industry grew in the United States, the number of active trains grew with it. In order to use the track efficiently, companies needed to create time schedules identifying when each section of the track was safe to use. The timekeeping accuracy of the engineer’s and conductor’s watches was crucial if two trains were moving in opposite directions. If one of the two engineers’ or conductors’ watches were keeping bad time there was a strong likelihood of a collision. Railroad watches became known as “standard” watches because they met the railroad’s standards of timekeeping.

What were the most common features of railroad watches?
The “best” railroad watches were made after 1900. At this time both the watch companies and the railroads were hitting their stride in terms of volume and quality. An important part of standard watch regulations included service intervals and testing, but there’s also a list of features that almost all railroad watches shared.

The most prominent feature of 1900’s railroad watches was their lever actuated setting mechanisms–commonly referred to as "lever-set.". Most watches were put in time-setting mode by pulling the crown, or winding knob, away from the watch, then pushing the crown back towards the watch to return to winding mode—referred to as "pendant-set."

A lever-set mechanism required the user to remove the bezel of the watch and engage a lever to place the watch in setting mode. This tedious process of removing the bezel had a very important purpose; it ensured that the time on the watch was never accidentally changed by catching the winding knob on a pocket or any number of other unintentional situations.
 

WATCH A VIDEO:  Elgin Railroad Watch Lever-Set Operation

Another iconic feature of railroad watches was their big, bold, black, Arabic numerals on highly contrasting white enamel dials with large bold hands. This feature made telling the time as clear and easy as possible while creating a distinctive and functional railroad watch design.

Mechanically speaking, almost all 1900’s railroad watches shared a number of performance and reliability enhancing features. Most had a fixed regulator to avoid timekeeping variation from impact, a double roller balance wheel to avoid going out of action, 19 or more jewels to reduce friction and increase consistency of the gear train, timekeeping adjustment in five or more positions to make sure the watch kept accurate time regardless of its orientation, and adjustment for temperature to ensure accuracy in a variety of climates. Many railroad watches had solid gold or gold plated gear trains and jewel settings to reduce the effects of magnetism as well as reduce tarnishing, and later watches had features such as magnetically resistant balance wheels.

Some of the highest end railroad watches featured what was referred to as an up-down wind indicator. It visually communicates how much wind remains in the watch on a sub-dial at 12 o’clock. This feature didn’t necessarily improve the timekeeping performance of the watch, but it was convenient for railroad workers to be aware of how much wind was left on the watch to avoid letting the watch run out.

Why do railroad watches appeal to collectors?
The Railroad Pocket Watch is particularly appealing to collectors because of the quality of its workmanship, second only to chronometers. Waltham and Elgin made the most, followed by Hamilton. Plus manufacturers didn’t produce these watches in the same quantities as everyday pocket watches.

The spirit of the rails inspires both watch and railroad memorabilia collectors to collect railroad watches. And these watches are affordable, with a typical watch in fine condition selling for between $300 and $600.

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