Lessons in Wristory: American Railroad Watches

1890 Ball Watch Ad

Tool watches are often perceived as simply “tough” watches. What are often overlooked are the watches that were truly “tools”, built with a meaningful purpose. Perfect examples of such watches are railroad watches. With accuracy and reliability being paramount, these both pocket and wristwatches were introduced in the mid-1800s to maintain safety on the railroads and ensure that trains were arriving and leaving on time. The story of railroad watches is definitely one to be aware of, as these watches contained some of the most accurate movements produced in their time – still accurate by today’s standards – and in our eyes are ultimately the first true “tool watches”.

As mentioned in Shane’s article from some time ago, these railroad watches go back to as early as 1850, when a small English watchmaking company in the heart of Boston, William Bond & Son, was commissioned by the Pennsylvania, Boston, and Providence railroads to produce over 50 pocket watches, from brands such as Barraud & Lund. In addition to the British watchmakers based in the United States, American watchmaking was also emerging elsewhere. New companies like Dennison, Howard, & Davis, Elgin National, and The American Watch Co. were supplying their own watches to the Pennsylvania Railroad to supplement the need for accurate timekeepers.

Accuracy and precision always needed to be maintained in railroad watches, as the slightest deviation away from railroad time could cause potentially fatal accidents. Just think about it, prior to time standardization, you could have an engineer on one side of the state setting his time according to the sky as he sees it, and another engineer on the opposite side of the state doing the same. By the nature of the sky being different as you move East to West, the inaccuracy of a watch’s movement will only exacerbate the miscalculated scheduling. To top it off, for a time, trains ran both ways on a single track, making accurate schedules all the more important.

Elgin BW Raymond

Elgin BW Raymond — courtesy of WatchesToBuy

On August 12th, 1853 on the Providence & Worcester railroad in Valley Falls, Rhode Island, 14 people tragically lost their lives due to a watch’s movement being just a meager two minutes slow. As a result of accidents like this, railroad companies began scheduling regular inspections of their watches, where a certificate would be provided to railroad-worthy timepieces. Having said that, railroad watches were becoming more and more accurate, as new benchmarks were being set every year through watches such as Waltham’s 1883 “Crescent Street Grade” and Elgin’s “B.W. Raymond”. These watches would become landmark examples that would go on to help in the development of the “Standard Code of Railroad Operating Rules”.

Another name in history that has always been synonymous with railroad watches is Cleveland jewelry store owner Webb C. Ball, or as one might more commonly recognize this name, the Ball Watch Co. In 1891, Ball became an “Official Watch Inspector and Timekeeper” for its adoption of the Washington Observatory’s Standard Time Service, a process developed to adjust movements under a variety of conditions to produce near-perfect results. At one point, 75% of the railroads in the US, or about 175,000 miles of track adopted Ball’s standards. To this day, Ball Watch Co. does its best to honor its roots by continuing to produce durable tool watches highly resistant to shock, water, and magnetic fields.

Ball Watch Official Railroad Watch

Ball Watch Official Railroad Watch

Like any other invention throughout history, innovation has to occur to keep that device relevant. In the case of the railroad watch, this necessary innovation would be the transition from the pocket to the wrist. These late 19th century wristwatches, or “wristlet watches” as they were known, were designed for women. Although the size and wrist placement was convenient, few had faith that these watches could be just as accurate as a pocket watch. This was then disproved in the First World War, as soldiers used modified pocket watches as their “trench watches”. The popularity of the wristwatch in post-WWI times would influence railroad companies to approve the use of wristwatches like Ball’s “Trainmaster”, equipped with a Swiss made 21 jewel movement, in the late days of the 1950’s. In fact, 1957 would mark the last year pocket watches made the list of approved railroad watches.

Bulova 214 RR

Bulova 214 RR — courtesy of Decade Counter

Before the railroad moved on to computers and electronically controlled timekeeping, the 1960s and 70s saw Bulova as one of the major approved railroad watchmakers. The Accutron 214 and 218-0 production spanned nearly two decades. Using Bulova’s famous tuning fork technology, the Accutron dominated the watch world in terms of accuracy – an obvious perfect match for the needs of the railroad.

Today, although the use of railroad watches has lessened due to the introduction of tracking trains with computers, railways such as the Union Pacific still require crew members to always have an accurate watch on their person. While railway watches might’ve been made obsolete by advanced technology, it’s still important to take note of their history. Not only are they arguably the first true “tool watches”, but they’re also a great example of the American watchmaking efforts, which can often be overlooked. So on your next train commute into the city, or on a scenic journey while on vacation, know that the tracks not only represent a pivotal time in the history of transportation, but an important era in watchmaking.

Featured photo courtesy of Bill Knapp (NAWCC).
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While Isaac could very well be the youngest watch journalist on the web, what he lacks in grey hairs, he makes up with passion and enthusiasm. After being introduced to mechanical watches at the young age of 5, his interest was sparked and he’s been obsessed with timepieces ever since. To keep up with Isaac elsewhere, you can follow him on Instagram (@isaacwin). If you'd like to get in touch with Isaac, you can email him at isaac@woundforlife.com.

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