Just What Is A Railroad Watch?


Kent Singer


                                                                                                                                                                                                          November 2000

Collecting Railroad Watches

A large number of pocket watch collectors focus on railroad watches.  These were amongst the highest grade watches made, perhaps being superseded in time keeping quality only by presentation watches and navigational chronometers.  Their high value and prestige, coupled with, in many instances, lower production quantities and, of course, the vast romance of railroading, are what make these watches attractive to collectors.


There are a number of watches which are so widely recognized, and known to have been accepted for railroad time service, that their grade names practically scream "Railroad Watch!"   Examples of such are:

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Fig. 1:  Hamilton grade 992E S/N 2,629,075 in its Model No. 2 "Bar-Over-Crown" case is perhaps the most widely recognized railroad watch ever made.  

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Fig. 2:  Waltham-Ball Official RR Standard S/N B 263497 in its stirrup bow case is also highly recognizable as a railroad watch.  

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Fig. 3:  Elgin grade 571 B. W. Raymond S/N K 696370 is in a classic "Teardrop" Model 3055 case.  It too is a well-known railroad design.  

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Fig. 4:  Waltham grade 1623 Vanguard S/N 33,370,573 is no less recognizable in its modern-looking factory case.  

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However, sooner or later, just about every collector, from the novice to the expert, comes up against an unusual watch about which the question arises, "Is this a railroad watch?"  In attempting to form an answer, the more basic question then becomes evident, "Just what is a railroad watch?"

Fig. 5:  Hampden's John C. Dueber Special grade is exemplified here by S/N  950263, a 17J "Special Adjusted" HC movement.  Is this a railroad watch?   Fig_5.jpg (56417 bytes)



The easy answer to that question is that railroad watches, referred to in the railroad industry as "standard watches" (because they met the railroad's standard), are those watches that were accepted for railroad time service.  The problems in using this definition become evident when the following facts are contemplated.  First, different railroads accepted different watches.  Then, while some railroads listed specific makes and grades as acceptable, others just listed requirements.


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Fig. 6:  In 1906 the Ball Time Service specifically approved this list of watches to enter service on a division of the Pennsylvania Rail Road.  The full set of requirements are on pp. 84 & 88 of the January 17, 1906  issue of The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review.  Courtesy NAWCC Library   Fig_6.JPG (157976 bytes)

Fig. 7:  On December 15, 1922, the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. published this rule No. 2 in its "Circulars pertaining to Train Operations - Rules Governing the Inspection, Repair, Cleaning, Comparison and Regulation of Standard Watches."

Courtesy Larry Buchan  

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Fig. 8:  The Illinois Central contracted with Giles, Bro. & Co. for time inspection services according to this excerpt from pg. 11 of the July 6, 1892 issue of The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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Besides, not all the lists and other such documents survived for our examination.  Another complication is that, whether or not specific watches were listed, the requirements differed from decade to decade.  The waters get muddied further by the fact that the requirements for "grandfathered" watches, those that were permitted to remain in service, as opposed to those newly entering service, varied from railroad to railroad and from decade to decade.  All things considered, the definition of a railroad watch evolves to a more meaningful form,


"A railroad watch is one that met the general time service requirements that were in effect at the time that it was built."


So, according to Giles, Bro. & Co., the John C. Dueber Special seen earlier, whose "Special Adjustment" includes temperature adjustment, IS a railroad watch.  Refer to the requirements shown in Figure 8.


In The Beginning

The use of watches on American railroads goes back almost to the beginning.  As soon as there were two trains moving in opposite directions on a single-track line, there arose a need to control their movements.  Very early on, those movements were described in terms of scheduled times and by how far off of scheduled time a train was.  On the Eire Railroad, a "time interval system" was used into the 1850's.


"The rule was that a ruling train had right of one hour against the opposing train of the same class." 1


As railroads grew bigger and busier, the hour interval fell by the wayside, but the concept continued with shorter headways.  It should be obvious that suitable watches would be needed to apply rules similar to this.  Accordingly, there is documentation that as early as 1850, the Boston and Providence Railroad ordered 45 English watches, from Bond & Son, Boston, for use in just such circumstances.2  The Pennsylvania Rail Road also purchased watches and published this rule.


"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."

P.R.R. 1849

Conductors furnished their own watches.3


This practice was dropped after awhile, possibly because, as Webb C. Ball later claimed, the watches were starting to find their way into pawn shops.4  Nevertheless, the concept of controlling the quality of the watches had merit.  By 1853, the Boston & Providence Railroad may have given up on the ownership of watches, but not the concept of controlling their quality.  They published these rules:


"7. Conductors will submit their watches to Bond & Sons, 17 Congress street, Boston, for examination, and procure from them a certificate of reliability which will be handed to the Superintendent.


"8. Conductors will report to Messrs Bond any irregularity in the movements of their watches, and they will clean, repair and regulate them, at the expense of the Corporation, furnishing Conductors with reliable watches in the interim.

August 31st, 1853" 5


Some of the earliest American machine-made watches went right into railroad service.  The American Watch Co. furnished some model 1857 Appleton, Tracy & Co. watches to the P.R.R. in 1866 and the Elgin B.W. Raymond, built in 1867, also saw service on the Pennsylvania Rail Road.  Both of these had dials signed for the railroad.  Of course the Pennsy wasn't the only customer for these watches and a large number probably only rode the rails when their owners took a trip somewhere.  Nevertheless, these two were typical of watches used in railroad time service on those roads specifying watches of a certain minimum quality.


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Fig. 9:  Although not having a dial indicating that it was owned by the P.R.R., Elgin S/N 30514, an 18S, 15J, HC, grade 69 B.W. Raymond, is typical of the watches accepted for use in the 1860's and 1870's.   Fig_9.jpg (91446 bytes)


The Path to Codified Standards

It is widely believed that Webb C. Ball was instrumental in bringing about a unification of time inspection standards, which included watch requirements, in the early 1890's.  However significant his contribution might have been, there was definition of standard time and regulated watch inspection as much as forty years prior to Ball's involvement in the 1890's.  The American Railway Association held a meeting in 1887 which resulted in defining the form of watch certificate.  This form was accepted by the majority of railroads with only minor changes and remained in use for a century. The same meeting did a lot to bring uniformity to the various rules in use on the different roads.  Just the same, Ball was well respected and his time service grew to control the inspection on half of the U.S.'s railroads.

(Click on the illustrations for enlargements)  

Figs. 10A & 10B:  Watches such as this 18S, 15J, HC, LS Peoria "For Railway Service" grade, S/N 18463 were in time service use in the 1880's and into the 1890's.   Fig_10A.jpg (55080 bytes) Fig_10B.jpg (76405 bytes)



  Over several decades, leading into the 1890's, the standard watch continued as an 18-size, 15-jewel watch, adjusted to positions.  Very few manufacturers specified just how many positions the watches were adjusted to, but three was typical.  Occasionally, a watch would be specified as adjusted to all positions, but there seems to be some disagreement as whether that meant five or six positions.

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Fig. 11:  This Howard ad on pg. 91 of the Aug. 1889 issue of The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review  indicates which watches were accepted for service on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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The Gay Nineties

In 1891, Dueber-Hampden introduced and heavily promoted a new line of 18-size, 17-jewel, standard watches and in doing so, created a demand that upset the entire marketplace.  Illinois introduced its 16-jewel Bunn as the highest grade in its line in late 1891.  At almost the same time, Columbus brought out its new high grade Railway King models, starting with a 16-jewel movement.

   (Click on the illustrations for enlargements)

Fig: 12:  Hampden had introduced its line of 17J watches during 1891, and was heavily promoting them as seen in this ad from The Feb. 1891 issue of The Railway Conductor.  Courtesy Catherwood Library  

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Fig. 13:  In the face of Hampden's advertising blitz for 17J standard watches, Waltham continued to promote its 15J Model 1883 grades for railroad service.  This Waltham ad in the Feb. 8, 1893 issue of The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review serves as an example.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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Fig. 14:  Hampden discontinued its 15J & 16J Railway grade even as their new 17J standard watches were hitting the market.  Wilson & Co. placed this ad in the Sept. 9, 1891 issue of The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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Fig. 15:  Hampden 17J watches, such as 18S, OF, LS, Special Railway grade S/N 1,077,415 seen here, brought about the end of the 15J standard watch.  

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Fig. 16:  Upon the introduction of the Railway King grade series of watches, starting with a 16J model, in 1890, Columbus began discontinuing its earlier standard watches.  This ad in the April 1890 issue of The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review serves as an example.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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Within a few short years, the 15-jewel standard watch, still accepted for entering service on many railroads, was an economic disaster.  In 1894, Waltham, just after introducing the 17-jewel Vanguard Model '92, was forced to add upper and lower center jewels to the 15-jewel model `83's remaining in inventory, and engrave them to be 17-jewel watches in order to dispose of them (see Figure 17).6  It was toward the later half of this decade that higher jeweled watches, those having 21 jewels or more, were introduced.  It was also during this time that the majority of the more interesting and private label watches were built.


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Fig. 17:  Waltham found itself with a number of 15J watches on hand for which there was no market.  So they refinished them, adding 2 center jewels and promoted them as 17J watches.  The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review Oct. 3, 1894, pg. 31.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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The 20th Century

By the first decade of the new century, 17-jewel watches were beginning to fade and 21-jewel (and higher) watches became firmly entrenched.  Although 18-size watches were the industry workhorse during this period, new model 16-size watches began to appear in significant quantities.  Hamilton's 992 was the most successful of these with over 100,000 sold in just a few short years.  An increasing  variety of other 16-size standard watches were produced.  During the early years of the twentieth century, despite Ball's rules for the Cleveland & Pittsburg(h) Division of the P.R.R. (see Figure 6), the move towards tighter requirements occurred.  By 1908 the widely known and familiar requirements were almost universally in place. 


Standard Requirements

(General - not from any specific set of rules)

Watches be:


American made 18 or 16 size

Fitted with 17 or more jewels

Temperature compensated

Adjusted to 5 positions

Lever Set

Timed to +/- 30 sec/week

Fitted with a:

    Double roller

    Patented regulator

    Steel escape wheel

    Plain while dial (but "Silvered" dials were allowed through the teens)


        Black Arabic numerals

        Each minute delineated

Open face

Configured with the winding stem at 12 O'clock


    (Which permitted the use of a hunting case movement in an open face case if it had a "conversion dial" moving the stem to 12 o'clock and the seconds bit to 3 o'clock)


In addition to curtailing the acceptance (for watches newly entering service) of Roman dials, pendant-setting and hunting case watches, a near universal inclusion of two features occurred over the course of only a year or two around 1906-1908.  One was that the marking "Adjusted" gave way to "Adjusted 5 Positions".   The other was that just about all new standard watches were fitted with a double roller.  

(Click on the illustrations for enlargements)  

Fig. 18:  Swiss watches were widely accepted for service in Canada, but were occasionally used in U.S. service as well. V & C's ad on pg. 88 of the  June 10, 1908 issue of The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review shows that such use was specifically targeted.  Courtesy NAWCC Library  

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Fig. 19:  V & C S/N 354281 is a 16S, 21J, OF, LS movement with 8 adjustments.  As such, it was suitable for railroad service anywhere in North American where Swiss watches were accepted.  

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Fig. 20:  Seth Thomas produced a number of high grade 18S, 21J, LS, OF watches such as No. 260, exemplified by S/N 221711.  

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Fig. 21:  Columbus introduced the Railway King grade in 1891.  S/N 344516 is a 16J, 18S, OF, LS model.  

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Fig. 22:  The highest grade from the U.S. Watch Co. at Waltham was the 18S, 17J, LS "The President," introduced in 1894.  S/N 150764 is an OF example of the grade.  

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The proliferation of grades from the various manufacturers during the first quarter of the 20th century has provided us with an overwhelming variety of standard watches to collect.  Most of the watches that we see were built during this period.  As for the 16-size watch, the 21-jewel model would be accepted for service for the next 30 years.  Railroad watch requirements had become so uniform and stable by the mid-teens that South Bend was able to promote its famous 5-year insurance plan.  The plan was that should any of its standard watches not be accepted due to a change in the requirements within five years of the date of purchase, South Bend would alter it to pass, or replace with one that would meet the requirements.


By the 1920's, the 18-size watch was falling out of favor, with fewer being made every year.  During the 1930's 18-size were no longer permitted to enter service, and on some roads, were not permitted to remain in service.  17-jewel watches also fell by the wayside, no longer being permitted on some roads.  In both instances, these watches were no longer being made and so the rules were following popular tastes.  It's significant to note that 17-jewel, 18-size watches, adjusted to three positions, continued to be grand fathered on some railroads as long as they met the 30 second per week requirement.


(Click on the illustrations for enlargements)  

Fig. 23:  The 16S, OF, LS  Waltham Riverside grade was a popular standard watch, in spite, or perhaps because, of only being 19J.  S/N 13,007,249 is an example of one that is only marked "Adjusted."  

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Fig. 24:  Although 17J and 19J railroad watches continued to be built for several decades, 21J watches became the most popular configuration for time service.  This ad from Feb. 1906 Locomotive Firemen's Magazine is typical of the flood of promotion of 21J watches.  Courtesy Catherwood Library  

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Fig. 25:  Hamilton S/N 342584 is a grade 992.  Unlike most standard watches in the early part of the century, it contains a double roller and is fully marked "Adjusted 5 Positions."  

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Fig. 26:  Elgin's grade No. 270 was introduced around 1900.  Marked only "Adjusted," as seen on S/N 13,279,595, a Veritas model, its specification (Fig. 24) fails to say how many positions.  

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Fig. 27:  While U.S. railroads focused almost entirely on American-made watches, the Canadians continued to use Swiss watches.  Zenith Superior grade S/N 1,644,852 is an 18S, 21J, OF, LS movement "Adjusted 5 Positions."  

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Fig. 28:  Elgin followed up its 16S, 21J, OF, LS grade No. 270 production with the grade 360 Veritas in 1907.  S/N 13,482,786 is an example, "Adjusted - 5 Positions."  

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Fig. 29:  Rockford moved from it earlier marking "Adjusted - RG" to "Adjusted 5 Positions - RG" as seen on grade 525 S/N 619049, a 16S, 21J, OF, LS watch.  

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Fig. 30:  Waltham also started marking its watches "Adjusted 5 Positions." 16S, 19J, OF, LS S/N 14,005,961 is a Crescent St. grade so marked.  

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Fig. 31:  South Bend promoted its famous 5-year insurance plan in a series of ads in the brotherhood journals throughout the `teens.  This example is from the June 1912 Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen's Magazine. Courtesy Catherwood Library  

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Fig. 32:  In 1931 Hamilton and Illinois (owned by Hamilton by that time) introduced the Elinvar hairspring.  Watches so equipped, were stamped  

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Rules Governing Watch Inspection Service of This Company

April 1, 1949


2.  The minimum standard of WATCHES NOW IN SERVICE is a grade equal to what is known among American Railroad Movements as "NICKEL 17-JEWELS, BREGUET HAIRSPRING, PATENT REGULATOR, LEVER SET, ADJUSTED TO TEMPERATURE AND THREE POSITIONS," that will run within a variation of thirty seconds per week.



Minimum serial numbers:  In the 1940's, some railroads specified minimum serial numbers of the different watch grades for acceptance.  This might have been due to the increasing use of the diesel-electric locomotive.  These generated large magnetic fields and the anti-magnetic property of Elinvar, and its equivalent used by Waltham and Elgin, may have been significant.  This is possible because the minimum serial numbers that were specified in the standards match up pretty closely with those of watches having these materials in their hairsprings.  However, there is enough disparity that this might not have been the prime reason.





Jewels Min S/N
Waltham Vanguard 23 31,328,730
Elgin B. W. Raymond 23 38,300,000
Elgin B. W. Raymond 21 42,371,527
Hamilton 950 23 2,625,000
Hamilton 992 21 2,620,000
Hamilton 992B 21 C-001
Illinois Bunn Special 23 5,665,000
Illinois Bunn Special 21 5,665,000
Ball ORRS* 23 B-648,500
Ball ORRS 21 B-647-500
Ball ORRS 21 1-B1
*Official Rail Road Standard


The post-war watches reduced down pretty quickly to the Waltham grade 1623 Vanguard, the Hamilton 992B (and Ball 999B) and the Elgin grade 571 B.W. Raymond.  There were a few others, but hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of these three watches were built in the post war era. 



 In the mid-1950's Ball had standard watches made by the Record Watch Co.  These were calibers 435, 435B and 435C.  They were the first Swiss watches to see widespread use in the U.S. in fifty years.  They're also significant for being just about the only standard pocket watch in service in the U.S. to have been fitted with an Incabloc (or any other) anti-shock system.  Another Swiss watch, the Zenith Extra RR 56, was introduced into Canada in 1956.  It was accepted on at least one U.S. railroad, the Alaska Railroad, as well.

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Fig. 33: Ball 435B S/N 2832 saw U.S. service in the 1950's.  It has an Incabloc anti-shock mounting on the balance cap.  

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Fig. 34:  Zenith grade Extra R.R. 56 S/N 4,732,412 is shown here, its anti-magnetic as well as adjusted to temperature and 6 positions.  

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Hamilton outlasted both Elgin and Waltham by a number of years.  In doing so, it managed to produce the last railroad standard pocket watch to be made in the U.S., the 992B.  This watch was in continuous production from 1941 to 1969.  At that time, all Hamilton manufacturing in the U.S. ceased.  At over 500,000 made, the 992B had the second largest production quantity of U.S.-built standard pocket watches, exceeded only by the original 992.  


Fig. 35:  Hamilton's grade 992B was the last U.S.-built standard pocket watch, being in production until 1969.  Its exemplified here by C 374366, continuously carried by the author for the last 25 years.  The balance is obscured because the watch is running.   Fig_35.jpg (90417 bytes)



So as has been discussed, railroad time service requirements preceded the American watch industry.  Rules were in place as early as 1849 and by the mid-1850's a number of railroads had some form of program.  Almost from the beginning, the key requirement was to keep time within 30 seconds per week.  For thirty years, the 18-size adjusted 15-jewel watch was perfectly capable of meeting this requirement.  It was driven from the market, not by changing rules, but by the "jewel-count war" initiated by Hampden in 1891.


Single roller, pendant-set, hunting-case watches with Roman dials were still being allowed to enter service as late as 1906, but several years later, the rules almost uniformly precluded these features.  The requirements really narrowed down by the end of the 1920's to 16-size 19-jewel minimum open-face, lever-set watches with Arabic dials.  These rules remained in effect for another thirty years.



1      Between the Ocean and the Lakes; the Story of the Erie, Edward Harold Mott, John S. Collins, NY, 1899, pg. 420, as quoted in A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, B. A. Botkin and Alvin F. Harlow, Bonanza Books, NY, 1953, pg. 82.

2      "Railroad Timekeepers"  Ian Bartkey, NAWCC Bulletin No. 262 (October 1989), PP 400-1.

3      "Rules for Passenger Engine Men,"  Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Transportation Department of the Pennsylvania Rail Road, 1949, reprinted in "Railroad Timekeepers" Ian Bartkey.

4      "Many Lives Sacrificed Because of Faulty Watches," James B. Morrow, The New York Tribune, January 10, 1910.

5      Selling The True Time, Nineteenth-Century Timekeeping in America, Ian R. Bartky, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2000, pg. 29

6      "Waltham 18=Size, 17 Jeweled Hunting or Open Face." Waltham Ad, The Jewelers' Circular Weekly and Horological Review, Oct. 3 1894, pg. 31.