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The Full Story of American Railroad Watches

The great American Railroad pocket watch came about from a desire to standardise the quality of the timepieces that were being used by Railroad staff to run the railways. Because of the immense distances involved much of the early American railways were single track with suitable passing places to allow trains travelling in opposite directions to pass each other. It was obviously imperative that trains passed each other at these passing places and didn't meet elsewhere. Timekeeping was critical and the very early watches being used were just not up to the job and simply not accurate enough. This was the situation up until 19th April 1891 when a disastrous head on collision between two trains near Kipton Ohio in which many lives were lost. Poor timekeeping by the Railroad employees, which was attributed to the poor quality watches being used by them was blamed for the disaster. Consequently the Railroad commissioners appointed Mr. Webb C. Ball, a well respected time inspector, to head up a committee to improve and standardise the specifications of all watches being used by railroad employees. Thereafter all railroad watch specifications and inspections became far more stringent and from 1893 a set of minimum standards / requirements was produced to which every watch being used by the railroads had to comply

The American Railroad Watch Standards for 1893 were:


The watch must be American made

Must be 16 or 18 size

Must have a minimum of 17 jewels

Must be adjusted to 5 positions for timekeeping consistency

Must keep time to within no more than plus or minus 30 seconds over seven days

Must be adjusted for temperature variations 40 to 95 Deg. F

Must have a double roller

Must be lever set (to avoid accidentally moving the set time whilst winding the watch)

Must have the winding stem at 12 o'clock

Must have a plain dial with Arabic numerals and have heavy hands

The American railroad watch has long been recognised as the peak of American watchmaking, being very high quality, robust, and extremely accurate. Indeed their accuracy has not really been improved much even today. A 100 year old railroad watch can still today be running within a couple of seconds per day, which is quite remarkable. All of the top American watch making companies produced railroad approved watches with the most famous being the Hamilton 992B,  the Illinois "Bunn Special",  the Waltham "Vanguard", and the Elgin "B W Raymond". But these are just the most well known as the watch companies produced hundreds of watches that became railroad approved

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