Post- Civil War, as Americans pushed west, and the trains that carried them and their goods expanded respectively, it became apparent that professional time-keeping was critical to the burgeoning culture of coast-to-coast transportation and citizenship.
In 1891, after a train collision in Ohio, Webb C. Ball was appointed as “Chief Time Inspector,” and tasked with development, oversight, and maintenance of a new system of standards to ensure the accuracy and reliability of train engineers’ pocket watches, thus increasing the level of track safety.
From his efforts, the “Railroad Chronometer,” — also colloquially known as “Railroad-grade” watches — was born. To be certified as a railroad chronometer, there were numerous criteria that watches had to meet, including legibility and size requirements, lever-set, and most importantly, accuracy requirements of no more than 30s fast or slow per WEEK. Ultimately these criteria created some of the most inherently technically advanced early tool watches. There were, of course, more accurate clocks and pocket watches, but those were typically developed for observatory accuracy competitions that didn’t involve working, real-world conditions.
I received this watch as a trade for a camera lens that I no longer needed or used. This is an example of a 1923 Illinois lever-set watch, of which some ~80,000 were probably made between 1913 and 1929. While it does feature the facial legibility and size requirements for a railroad chronometer, it was not adjusted to five positions (only four), and certainly doesn’t maintain +/- 30s per week right now — though for an almost 100-year-old watch, running within a minute a day isn’t too bad at all, especially considering it likely hasn’t been serviced in decades. Aside aside, it technically doesn’t meet the requirements for a railroad chronometer, but most people (including myself) would consider it “railroad grade.” For-most among the reasons why, is it being a lever-set watch. For those familiar with watches, most are set by pulling the crown (the little button-shaped thing on the side of the watch) out, and turning it. As a preventative measure to keep the time from being changed if the pocket watch crown was accidentally snagged on a coat pocket as it was pulled in or out, lever-set watches’ crowns are different. To set the time on a lever-set watch, one unscrews the crystal on covering the face of the watch, and then pulls a tiny metal release lever, that allows the crown to spin and set the time, and then, when pushed back into the watch, prevents the crown from changing the time — the crown’s sole purpose when the lever is pushed in, is to wind the watch.
This example, is in reasonable condition: it runs and keeps time to within a minute per day as of my limited tracking. Its porcelain dial is “intact” in the sense that there are no HUGE pieces missing, but it is cracked in several spots. The crystal is in good knick and there are only minuscule, barely visible scratches. The movement is — like most hand-wound mechanical watch movements — intriguing to look at and watch, and like most of its hand-made in America brethren, beautiful finished by hand; however, at 95 years old, it has gathered some goop and grime and could probably stand to have a good cleaning and service.
Regardless of its acute technical efficiency (or inefficiency), the watch is a thing of beauty to behold.
It’s a size 16, which at its time of production, would have been considered quite large; while it remains very legible at a glance today, the proportions of watches have grown over the years, and while larger than most wristwatches of today, it feels small in-hand, as well as slim and manageable in a front pants pocket. Which is how I’ve carried it the past few days…
Without a doubt, it’s a redundant piece of analog technology from a bygone age: why pull out a pocket watch when I could pull out my phone and accomplish the same task — checking the time? Because the FEEL of the engraved case, and the cathartic, PURE task of winding it every day or so, and the subtle, but ever-present and ever-evident ticking just makes one’s heart happy. I had been on the hunt for a reasonably-priced copy of a nice pocket watch for a good couple months now, but had written off the possibility of getting one for the time being — especially a railroad-grade piece. But thanks to some family friends who are equally as eclectic as I am, I luckily arrived at a stellar, mutually-beneficial quid-pro-quo deal that left me with this beaut. So, while this isn’t much of a review, it is an exercise in photography and capturing the beauty, history, inspiration, and life in an inanimate object.
*[As an edit, here’s a quick video I shot of the back of the watch while it was running]: