One Track Mind: American Railroad Watches

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The American Railroad has been dying since the 1920s.

Anyone who has ever ridden about an Amtrak train in the last 20 years will with me. After taking several long trips, up and down the legacy tracks built along the East Coast earlier this year, it was clear to me that the glory days of train travel in the United States are long gone. The once strong blood vessels that crisscrossed across the heart of American industry have long since run dry. But it wasn't always this way. There was a time when the American railroad, like the American watch industry, was an indomitable beast.

To understand why the American railroad was revolutionary, you must first understand what preceded it

Before the railroad was the canals. In the early 1800s, a $7,000,000 project began with the goal of connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean. This canal system saw new cities spring up along the Erie River as it generated over $121,000,000 in revenue (That's $121,000,000 in 1800s money by the way). By 1840, there was over 3000 miles of canals across America. In 60 years, it was all rendered obsolete by the railroad

The first railroads were nothing more than a few hundred feet of track that ran a horse drawn carriage shifting freight from quarry to quarry. Gradually, businessman began to realize the potential of railroads and in 1830, the first railroad designed to transport people was built. The first American steam locomotive was The Best Friend of Charleston which ran on the Mohawk and Hudson railroad. A meandering 40 mile, day long canal trip was now a 17 mile ride that took under an hour to complete. By 1850, over 9,000 miles of track had been lain. By the end of the 1920s, railroads carried almost 800 million people annually and accounted for 70% of all intercity travel. Railroads handled 75% of all intercity commercial freight with canals handling just 17%

So what does this have to do with watches?

As railroads shortened the travel time between cities, the problem of local time became clear. Each city had their own tower clocks which the stations would set their time by; so in Worcester it might be 9:01am and in Webster it could be 9:05am. When you're idly sailing downstream at the rate of a few knots, then a few minute here or there won't matter all that much. When you're hurtling at breakneck speeds in huge steel engines with temperamental brakes, a few minutes means the difference between an empty platform or careening into the back of the dining carriage. To make railroads safe, there had to be accurate timepieces controlling the trains.

Some of the earliest attempts at creating a standard time along a railroad was in 1834. An engineer working on the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company line between Charleston and Hamburg came up with a solution. He thought that by "by placing clocks (at six stations) which, being well-regulated and readily accessible to the Engineer and Agent, will enable them to regulate their movements on the road with great accuracy". In 1849, the Pennsylvania Railroad had created rules that governed the handling of watches used by conductors and engineers aboard trains: "Each engineer will be furnished with a watch which shall be regulated by the Station Agent at the commencement of each trip, and must be deposited with him when the engine returns. If not returned in as good order as it was received, the Engineer must pay the expense of repairs".


As well-intended as these rules and others like them were, accidents still happened. The quality of the watches used by train staff could vary from engineer to engineer leading to time discrepancies on the same time. The problem with fining engineers for inaccurate watches was that it incentivized them to care more about passing the inspection than alerting their employers to inaccurate watches. When money is on the line, never doubt humanity's ability to turn a blind eye.

As the network of trains expanded, train companies began using each other's tracks but each were using their version of 'correct time'. By the mid 1800s, the Superintendent of the Boston and Providence Railroad Corporation realized the need for a universal time standard across all railroads and the need for high quality timepieces for all staff. This was no easy task. Whilst the British railroads had served as inspiration for America, the two couldn't have been run more differently. English railroads were designed, built and managed by men like Stephenson, Brunel and Brunton. They were engineers, not businessmen and their railroads grew slowly. American railroads were commercial enterprises managed by dozens of competing businesses. As profits were more important than human lives, accidents started to happen. In 1891, 6335 people were killed and over 35,000 were injured on American railroads.

The American railroad is a testament to the determination and tenacity of engineering on a large scale. The American Railroad watch is a testament to engineering on the smallest scale.

The early days of the American railroad were the early days of the American watch industry. Still in its infancy, American watchmakers were not able to manufacture pocket watches of high enough quality to be used on trains so many railroads imported watches from Great Britain. By the time of the Civil War, high grade pocket watches were produced for both Union and Confederate Forces and after the war, these manufacturers began supplying pocket watches to the railroads. Each railroad had a varying standards but the de facto requirements were large arabic, numbers, a railroad minute track, big hands and a white dial. In 1887, the American Railway Association finally defines the standards of watches used on the rails and these were finalized in 1908. Then the definition of a railroad standard watch was:

  • American made with an 18 or 16 ligne size movement
  • Fitted with 17 or more jewels
  • Temperature compensated from 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Adjusted to 5 positions
  • Lever set
  • Timed to +/- 30 seconds a week
  • Fitted with a double rolled, patented regulator, steel escape wheel
  • Plain white dial (Silver dials were allowed from 1910 onwards) with black Arabic numerals with each minute delineated
  • Open face
  • Winding stem at 12 o'clock
  • Older watches could be grandfathered in if they met the +/- 30 seconds a week inspection

These standards might seem persnickety but each of them is there for a reason. Temperature compensation was important as the heat of the engine could otherwise affect the timekeeping of the watch. A lever set movement meant that a small lever inside of the case had to be lifted in order for the hands to be set. This stopped the hands from getting changed if the conductor was winding or fidgeting with the crown. Pocket watches with a closed cover had the possibility of getting stuck rendering them useless so only open faces were allowed. By having the winding stem at 12 o'clock, it meant that the watch couldn't be held the wrong way and the time read wrong. It had taken 70 years but finally, the official railroad standard watch had arrived.

There are differences between a railroad standard watch and a railroad watch.

A railroad standard watch was provided only to railroad employees who were directly involved in the running and operation of the train. These standard watches, as the name implies, had to pass the set of standards that the railroad company set. A railroad watch was any watch used by railroad employees who didn't have control of the train like ticket collectors. They could use any watch they wanted, but most chose to use watches similar in style to the railroad standard watches.

Peer pressure exists even in the train world. 

Peer pressure exists even in the train world. 

The watch manufacturer most associated with the railroad standard watches was Webb C. Ball Watch Company, most commonly known as the Ball Watch Company. Despite their name being so closely linked to the production of railroad watches, Ball never actually produced watches themselves. Instead they contracted other brands like Elgin, Hamilton and the Illinois Watch Company to make watches but made all the final adjustments themselves.

The American Watch Company, also known as Waltham, made the first American watch for railroad use in 1857, the Appleton, Tracy & Co. It was an odd name for a watch but it did the job. The Model 1870 (named after the year of its creation) replaced the Appleton and was an 18 ligne, 15 jewel movement and was manufactured from 1870 to 1883 with a total production of 17,900 movements.

Even as the wristwatch became the way of telling time, the pocket watch was still used on railroads

Railroad companies were still issuing pocket watches to their engineers up until the late 1950s as no-one believed a wristwatch could ever be as accurate as a pocket watch. Yet it was only a matter of time before the pocketwatch was eclipsed by the affordability and convenience of wristwatches so watch companies began producing railroad standard wristwatches.

Elgin manufactured the B.W. Raymond Railroad Wrist Chronometer in 1961 which was the first American-made wristwatch for official use on the NYC rail system. It had a 23 jewel movement with hacking seconds encased in a faraday cage to protect it against the magnetic fields emanating from the diesel-electric engine. The Raymond was available to buy for $79.50. Bulova introduced a railway approved version of their Accutron tuning-fork movement in 1963 and Ball produced the 'Trainmaster' with a Swiss made, manually winding 21 jewel movement in 1969.

As technology advanced, so did the rules governing watches

Now satellite communications and a centralized traffic control negated the need for individual clocks placed at stations. The entire train system is now timed by the Naval Observatory in Washington D.C., though railroad engineers still carry wristwatches. It's unlikely that any still use a mechanical wrist or pocket watch given the conviennce and accuracy of quartz watches though. Companies like Seiko, Citizen and Pulsar still make railroad approved watches that train staff can buy.

It's unlike that America's trains will ever run on time again, but the future looks brighter for the watch industry. Companies like Niall have produced quartz watches that are suitable for wear by police officers, so it's still in the realms of possibility for them to make one for the railroad. Maybe then the trains will run on time?