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All Aboard! The Intersection Between the Great American Railroad and Horology

A Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad wagon at a level crossing, 1900 / Western New York Railroad Archive

Tragedy can be a harsh but important teacher. In Ohio, in 1891 the loss of nine lives from the Kipton trainwreck was down to a conductor’s watch being out by just four minutes. In the rail accident’s investigation in the weeks that followed, many important lessons would be learned. 

It was the late nineteenth century in America and the role of the railroad was to make a transformational impact on the nation’s industrialisation and the way new technologies, such as machine building and iron and steel production, advanced to meet the demands of railroad growth. The rail network opened the way for the settlement of the West, provided new economic opportunities, stimulated the development of towns and communities, and generally tied the country together. In fact, one could argue that the railroad even brought the democratic process to the people by enabling presidential candidates to meet and talk with their constituents in every state. The railroad was instrumental in forging the New World’s most successful democracy.     

Hamilton Watch Co. Lancaster, PA. Model 950 a 10ct gold filled openface railroad grade watch. $1,000-1,500

During this transformative era, trains as a new technology would also determine the way people conceptualised time. Before time standardisation, a train conductor on one side of the state would set his time according to the sky as he observed it, with another on the opposite side of the state doing the same. By nature of the sky being different as you move East to West, the inaccuracy of a watch’s movement could exacerbate miscalculated scheduling. Adding to this potential railroad disaster tinderbox was that a single track was often shared by trains going in either direction with the ability to pass each other only at stations and designated sidings. Should a watch’s timing be even slightly out, tragic incidents similar to the one in Ohio could result. 

Elgin Watch Co. a gold filled openfaced railroad grade watch with winding indicator. $1,000-1,500

The close of the 19th century saw people transition from living by local time based on the sun to a calculated, mechanical time that was locally variable. In the United States, a new standard time system was implemented in 1883, instituting the time zones in use today. It replaced 49 different operating times and synchronised clocks within a geographical region to a single time standard, rather than a local mean time standard. The adoption of standard time and the railway tool watch would work hand-in-hand to transform rail freight and travel.   

Ball Watch Co. Cleveland O. Official RR Standard a gold filled openface railroad grade watch. $800-1,000

During the 1890s, nostalgically referred to as the “Gay Nineties” as a decade of prosperous comfort and progress, the railroad industry went to work with some of the biggest watchmakers of the time such as Ball, Hamilton, Howard, Illinois, Waltham, and Elgin to create watches unrivalled in quality and reliability. Any watch now being used in the rail service responsible for schedules was required to have a number of specifications including to be open-faced, size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 17 jewels, be adjusted to a least 5 positions, keep time accurately to a gain of only 30 seconds a week, be adjusted to temperatures, have a double roller, be lever set, have a micrometric regulator, have a winding stem at 12, and feature plain Arabic numbers printed bold and black on a white dial, with bold black hands. The railroad worker was required to use a timepiece more accurate than many scientific instruments.     

Ball Watch Co. Cleveland, O. Hamilton Grade. Official RR Standard a gold filled openface railroad grade watch. $1,200-1,600

Standards for these watches evolved over time, right into the age of wristwatches, and these led to some beautiful, interesting, and mechanically impressive watches. Not only did these true tool watches contain some of the most accurate movements produced in their time – still accurate by today’s standards – the rich history of the railroad watch holds an almost mythical place in the rise, prosperity, and the uniting of the states of America. 

Patricia Kontos, Senior Timepieces Specialist

Banner image clockwise from left: Ball Watch Co. Cleveland, O. Hamilton Grade Official RR Standard a gold filled openface railroad grade watch. $1,200-1,600
Ball Watch Co. Cleveland O. Official RR Standard a gold filled openface railroad grade watch. $800-1,000
Elgin Watch Co. a gold filled openfaced railroad grade watch with winding indicator. $1,000-1,500
Hamilton Watch Co. Lancaster, PA. Model 950 a 10ct gold filled openface railroad grade watch. $1,000-1,500

February 2024