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The Smoke Stack

The Amazing History of Railroad Watches

Posted on May 18, 2017

~ It became accepted that when the average person asks a railroad man the time, he is assured a correct answer. ~

Railroad Standard Watches (chronometers) are specialized timepieces that once were crucial for safe and correct operation of trains around the world. Timetable and Train Order was a system that relied on highly-accurate timekeeping to ensure that two trains could not be on the same stretch of track at the same time. Regulations of the watches used by railroad personnel were specified in the mid 19th century and became more widespread and more specific as time went on.

A notable watch inspector who deserves mentioning was Webb C. Ball whose claim to fame unfortunately arose from a disaster.

On April 19, 1891, the first mail train (Fast Mail No. 4) was traveling west on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad in Kipton, Ohio. In Elyria, 25 miles from Cleveland, the Engineer and the Conductor of the Accommodation were given orders to let the Fast Mail pass them ahead at Kipton. As the Accommodation Conductor admitted later, from the time the train left he didn’t take his watch out of his pocket; he said that he assumed the Engineer would look out for Fast Mail No. 4. Unbeknownst to the Engineer, his own watch was behind four minutes, and through several stations between Elyria and Kipton, the train advanced under the belief that there was time to spare. The two trains came together at Kipton… the Engineers of both trains were killed, and nine other casualties were reported.


The “Kipton Disaster” prompted the Lake Shore officials to enlist Webb C. Ball, a well-known Cleveland jeweler, to investigate time and watch conditions throughout the Line and to implement an inspection system. Watches worn by all railroad workers were then regularly inspected by approved watchmakers who forbade time variations more than 30 seconds. A typical railroad’s requirements for a watch in the early 20th century might include:

  • Only American-made watches may be used (depending on availability of spare parts)
  • Only open-faced dials, with the stem at 12 o’clock
  • Minimum of 17 functional jewels in the movement
  • 16 or 18-size only
  • Maximum variation of 30 seconds (approximately 4 seconds daily) per weekly check
  • Watch adjusted to at least five positions: Face up and face down (the positions a watch might commonly take when laid on a flat surface); then crown up, crown pointing left, and crown pointing right (the positions a watch might commonly take in a pocket). Occasionally a sixth position, crown pointing down, would be included.
  • Adjusted for severe temperature variance and isochronism (variance in spring tension)
  • Indication of time with bold legible Arabic numerals, outer minute division, second dial, heavy hands
  • Lever used to set the time (no risk of inadvertently setting the watch to an erroneous time, when winding the watch with the stem)
  • Breguet balance spring
  • Micrometer adjustment regulator
  • Double roller escapement
  • Steel escape wheel
  • Anti-magnetic protection (after the advent of diesel-electric locomotives)

Ball’s career eventually led to his being the time inspector on more than half the United States’ railways, leading to a far more uniform set of standards in the U.S.

To a large extent, the development of the watch industry in America can be attributed to the advent and subsequent development of American railroads. Prior to the trains’ roles of transporting people and goods, there was no real need for precise timekeeping or uniform time.

DID YOU KNOW? Ball’s promptness and accuracy was the origin of today’s well-known phrase “on the ball.”

TRIVIA: Which hand do you look at first when you check your watch? The sweep second hand. Why? To be sure your watch hasn’t stopped!

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