The Importance of Railroad Watches
By Don Lynch
In 1977, I worked with my friend Jack, who was part of a family that I've known since 1964. We discussed pocket watches and I was interested in purchasing a nice one.
Jack recommended buying a railroad watch. He said it was of the highest quality of craftsmanship in its day. Well, I didn't know anything about such watches so I visited a watch shop at the Thieves Market in Alexandria, Va. The shop was called It's About Time Shop.
I went in and told the owner I wanted to buy a railroad watch. He asked if I knew what a railroad watch was and of course I didn't and he told me this story:
In the late 1800s railroads had proliferated throughout our country. Many miles of track consisted of one rail line so trains running both ways had to synchronize the use of the rail. Time keeping was not standardized and many trains had head-on collisions due to poor time management.
It all changed on April 19, 1891 when the Number 14 fast mail train collided with an accommodation train outside of Kipton, Ohio. Eight lives were lost because an engineer's watch had stopped for four minutes and then restarted.
As a result of this disaster, a commission was formed and the "General Railroad Timepiece Standards" were adopted in 1893. W.C. Ball was commissioned to devise standards that the railroad would soon adopt as the time keeping standard.
The standard was quite practical. A railroad employee carried a watch in his pocket all day, and in the evening went home and laid it on a nightstand or dresser.
The watch needed to be accurate under all these conditions so it was calibrated for five positions. In the pocket it was calibrated for stem up and left and right. It was calibrated for face up and down at the end of a worker's day.
Temperature was another problem, so the hairspring was bimetallic (or two metals), which kept even time over a wide temperature swing.
Lastly, it was compensated for isochronism or running evenly throughout its winding. A railroad watch was accurate to within 30 seconds per week. The size of the watch had to be 18 or 16 in size with a minimum of 16 to 18 jewels.
People ask, "What is a jewel?"
Well, watch jewels were made of rubies or sapphire, both of which are aluminum oxide compounds. The two are the hardest compounds next to diamond and make great bearings, the components that allow shafts to turn with little friction.
Another important specification was the changing of the time had to be lever set. The face was numbered in plain Arabic with large numerals, which I appreciate at my age!
Accidents dropped dramatically after the adoption of the time standard and in view of fatal accidents in Riverdale Park, is an important advance in the technology of the railway system.
I have always admired what technology has created, but as a close friend of mind, who was once a horologist and is now in his 80s, stated, "It was made back in the time when people had time to make watches".
Yes, it was truly a technological breakthrough, but I enjoy it for its beauty of craftsmanship. My watch is a treasure that is very dear to me.