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Will Fly

Fact And Fallacy With Regard To American Railroad Grade Pocket Watches

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I've seen a number of North American watches on the net recently advertised as 'railway' watches or 'railroad grade' when, on closer investigation, it turns out that they aren't. These descriptions, though probably honest but mistaken, are misleading, and I thought it might be useful to describe some of the facts and fallacies around this type of watch as I understand them. Any comments and corrections welcomed!

It's a part of urban folklore that the impetus for creating a railroad grade watch came from a train crash near Kipton, Ohio, in 1891 - caused by a 4-minute error in a conductor's watch - which led to the work of a commission led by Webb C. Ball. However, work on creating watches of good quality for railroad use had been going on long before that - Ball's achievement was to set down a set of watch criteria for adoption by the various railroad companies in the US, and the crash was a spur to that. Ball's commission laid down criteria in 1893.

• only American-made watches could 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 (-30F to +90F) 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 having the stem left out, thus inadvertently setting the watch to an erroneous time)

• Breguet balance spring

• micrometer adjustment regulator

• double roller

• steel escape wheel

• anti-magnetic protection (after the advent of diesel locomotives)

Mistakes commonly made in selling, advertising these watches:

• dials were double-countersunk. Not necessarily - Ball himself preferred single countersunk dials as being stronger

• number of jewels had to be at least 21. Not so - though a 21-jewel watch became the norm in later years

• dials with railway-style markings - particularly the 'Montgomery' style - denote railroad watches. The dial by itself is no indicator of the watch being railroad grade.

• Ball watches were made by the Ball Company. Not so - the Ball Watch Co. was responsible for the final setting and regulation of Ball railroad grade watches - but they were made by firms like Waltham, Hamilton and Elgin, and the only indication of the manufacturer was often the serial number.

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What a clear and concise post, well done that man. I am sure

the information will come in handy for anyone looking to

purchase such a timepiece.

I would hazard a guess that this has been prompted by evilbay

sellers advertising watches as Railroad in the vain hope

they will garner higher final prices as has been seen

with the fabled Timex Military wristwatch recently.

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Yes - I've seen two or three misleading eBay adverts recently. I knew one of the sellers - bought a Bunn Special and a ~Waltham US Military watch from him (both genuine, by the way!) - and pointed out his error with a Hamilton 974 in describing it as a RR grade watch. He was genuinely surprised - thought the dial said it all...

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And another +1 from me Will. It will help stop somebody making an expensive mistake not least me who is currently looking for his first RR PW.

I came across this site this morning

http://people.timezone.com/msandler/Articles/ClitheroeRailroad/Railroad.html

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And another +1 from me Will. It will help stop somebody making an expensive mistake not least me who is currently looking for his first RR PW.

I came across this site this morning

http://people.timezone.com/msandler/Articles/ClitheroeRailroad/Railroad.html

very interesting thanks

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Thanks for the link to the Timezone site - very interesting.

One of the fallacies I should have mentioned is that lever set movements were always railroad movements - not so! It became fashionable around the turn of the century for people's ordinary pocket watches to be lever set - even in hunter cases. I recently sold an 18s Elgin from 1902 that was cased in a hunter case. To set the hands, there was a pry point in the bezel - around 2 o'clock - which, when the bezel was lifted, revealed the lever setting. Weird, or what! The movement in this watch was a bog-standard Elgin, 7-jewel movement - very pleasant but nowhere near RR grade.

I'm happy to say that, included in my collection, are a "B.W. Raymond/Elgin 571", two Illinois "Bunn Specials", a Hamilton 992B and an Elgin "Father Time" - all RR grade and all wonderful watches. However, as time goes on (no pun intended!), I look more and more for watches with perfect dials - no hairlines, cracks, scuffs, chips, etc. - if I can find them. Typical collector's obsession! Mind you, the Ball-Waltham I got recently has the odd hairline or two - but as these are like hens teeth, it didn't matter too much...

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I think what is being discussed here are railroad APPROVED watches. The term 'Railroad Watch' was used by the jewellery and watch trade and is now used by collectors. The railroad industry and the railroaders referred to them as 'Standard Watches' as they were the watches that met the railroads' time service standards. These were watches that were approved for use by the many different railroads( there was I believe well over 50). Some Railroad companies listed watches by name, whilst others just listed requirements. In the early years Pendant set watches were accepted by some Railroads, as were hunter cases, Roman dials and various styles of hands. As time went by different standards were set, but these older watches that were already in service were allowed to remain in service. This was known as 'grandfathering'. So there are railroad approved watches still in existance that to the inexperienced collector would not look anything like the later more well known approved watches. In fact they are much rarer now and just as desirable if not more so.

Railroad 'GRADE' watches are those that were advertised as being able to pass or exceed railroad inspection and were used mainly by railroaders who were not required to submit their watches for inspection.

Some American 12 size watches were equal or superior to many railroad 18 and 16 size watches. Imagine how much skill was required to make these much smaller movements with 23 jewels, motor barrels running in jewels, full gold polished trains, raised gold jewel settings held in by two or three screws, double roller escapements, micrometric regulators, adjusted to five or six positions etc. etc., They were masterpieces and were more expensive when new but can be bought now for less than some of the more popular railroad approved watches.

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This is a watch from my collection that is Railroad Approved. It is in a silver full hunter case and at the time it was made it was accepted by the Railroads at the time it was manufactured.DSCF0029.jpg

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The dial has Roman numerals and fleur-de-lis hands. In later years this type of case, dial and hands would not have been acceptable to the Railroads, but because of the very high cost these type of watches were allowed to remain in service if they could still maintain the accuracy demanded by the Railroads.DSCF0031.jpg

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This is an 18 size model 1892 Waltham Vanguard and was the highest quality Waltham at the time, with 21 jewels in gold settings with diamond end stones to the balance. It is adjusted to 5 positions plus heat and cold and isocronism and bi-metalic cut balance wheel and solid gold balance screws and a micrometric gold regulator. It's 120 years old and still keeps time to a few seconds a day. Basically a Railroad Approved watch is one that was approved at the time of manufacture.DSCF0032.jpg

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That's an interesting one Shiner, approved equals approval at the time of manufacturer. I read your pictures before the text and got on my, 'oh no it is not' box (hunter and 12 not at 12). As they say, 'every day is a school day'.

Keep these facts coming please.

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American Railroad Approved watches were being produced as far back as the 1860s. Prior to that the watches were imported from Europe and England as America no watch industry. Back then a 15 jewel watch was regarded as fully jewelled. As time went on this number was increased to 17 jewels, then 19,21 and 23 jewels. This was not on the insistance of the Railroads, but because of the fierce competition between the watch manufacturing giants of the time trying to increase their share of the market at the expense of their rivals. So we would have say Waltham introducing a 17 jewel model, so the other followed suit. Then maybe Elgin brought out a 19 jewel movement, then perhaps Illinois came up with a 21 jewel watch and so it went on. These companies were producing millions of watches and it was a cut throat business.

At the time Webb C Ball insisted that 15 jewels in a top quality watch was all that was required, but the competition between the watch manufacturers and public opinion kept pushing the jewel count up and consequently the Railroads followed suit.

Notice on the Vanguard(the highest quality Waltham produced at that time) it is marked 'Adjusted'. There is no mention of the number of adjustments, although they were adjusted to 5 positions plus heat and cold etc., This watch has an early 7 million serial number. It was not until the introduction of the standardisation of Railroad Approval that the number of adjustments had to be placed on the movement. In the case of the Model 1892 Walthams this was quite a few years later around the 14 million serial numbers.

So, there is no particular date or set of specifications regarding a Railroad Approved watch. In fact different Railroads sometimes approved different watches. If a watch was Railroad Approved in the 1870s, 80s or 1890s, it is still a Railroad Approved watch today, as far as a collector is concerned. After all, they met the highest standards of their day and are highly desirable watches.

As a matter of interest did you notice the engraving on the watch case. Evidently it is supposed to depict an 'iron horse' and the 'v' shape below as the 'cowcatcher' on the front of the 'ironhorse'.

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As a matter of interest did you notice the engraving on the watch case. Evidently it is supposed to depict an 'iron horse' and the 'v' shape below as the 'cowcatcher' on the front of the 'ironhorse'.

.

Missed that symbolism completely, something else to look for. Incidentally, were there any RR Approved Key wound

PWs as opposed to Stem wound? As they were around in the 1860s I guess the answer must be yes but I'd like confirmation of that to shoot down a personal theory of mine.

John

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John,

It seems that some of the Waltham Model 1857s and the Elgin B.W. Raymond keywinds were in service with the Pennsylvania Railroad at the start of the 1870s.

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The Waltham Vanguard shown above in the silver hunter case was part of the 5th run of Vanguards and they were officially known as the Vanguard Model, but after just five runs of the Vanguard, Waltham decided to produce several less expensive variations of the movement and so they renamed it from the Vanguard Model to the 1892 Model (The year it first went into production). Thereafter the Vanguard became the top GRADE in the 1892 MODEL.

This next watch that I've had for a few years now is a slightly later Model 1892 Vanguard Grade and dates to 1900. This is an 18 size in an open faced case and is pendant wound and lever set, with 21 jewels in gold settings and diamond end stones to the double roller balance and micrometric Star regulator and adjusted to 5 positions(Still only marked as adjusted).DSCF0053.jpg

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This has what is now becoming the more standard dial with Arabic numerals and blued spade hands that is associated with the later Railway Approved watches.DSCF0051.jpg

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The Model 1892 became one of Walthams most successful watches. It was always a high quality movement, made in several grades with never less than 17 jewels and always adjusted. After the first 5 runs, Waltham began to introduce different grades of the model 1892.

This watch is from the first run of the Crescent Street Grade(Run No.8 of the 1892). The Crescent Street Grade is named after the street that runs alongside the Waltham Factory and is second to the Vanguard in quality. It is Railroad Grade and Railroad Approved.

One of the reasons that I bought this particular watch was that I noticed that the movement was actually marked '5 positions' which is very unusual for a Waltham of this age. There have been some recorded before the fourteen million serial numbers but they are few and far between and there seems to be no explanation as to why they should have been so marked. I have since been told that this is now the earliest so far recorded.DSCF0046.jpg

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The Waltham 1892 was specifically designed for Railroad use and the first Vanguards left the factory in 1894, a year after Webb C Ball's commission, and initially the open face Vanguards were PENDANT SET and the hunter cased Vanguards were LEVER SET.

In fact some pendant set watches were still being approved by some railroads up to 1909 and hunter cased watches were still in use by some railroads up to the second world war.

The watches accepted as standard watches on a railroad were defined by the Time Service Departmant of that railroad, and it should be noted that the standard differed from railroad to railroad.

So basically a standard watch is one that met the general time service requirements of the railroad that were in effect at the time it was built.

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Here are two more Waltham Vanguards. The one on the right is a Model 1889, that dates to about 1908. It is adjusted to 5 positions(now shown on the movement) with 23 jewels including diamond endstones to the double roller balance, and micrometric regulator.

The one on the left is a Model 1908 and dates to about 1911. It has all the atributes of the Model 1899 the main difference being the more modern Ohlson regulator also known as the '1908 regulator'.

They are both railroad GRADE but only one is railroad GRADE and APPROVED. DSCF0059.jpg

Edited by Shiner

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The one on the right is railroad grade and approved. It is lever set and has the railroad approved dial and hands.

The one on the left is an equally fine watch, and the original owner would not have been a railroad worker, but probably someone who wanted a top class watch with a traditional dial and with the less fiddly pendant setting. Plus its housed in a 14K solid gold case.DSCF0060.jpg

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This next Railroad grade Waltham is very similar in appearence to the Vanguard on the right above, although it is the later 1908 model. It is a Crescent Street grade, the grade just below the Vanguard. It is 21 jewels in gold settings, adjusted to 5 positions, solid gold main wheel, bi-metalic cut balance with gold balance screws, and Ohlson patent regulator. It dates to 1926.

The movement is mounted in a substantial Railroad Grade Nawco gold filled screw case. The case is unusual in that it has an inner dust cover beneath the rear screwed cover. Many of the cases have lost the inner cover.

The dial is also unusual in that it has an original silvered dial. These were judged to be less reflective and therefore easier to read in bright sunlight. At the time of manufacture this dial was classed as an optional extra and cost a two dollar premium over the enamel dial.

So we have a good quality railroad grade movement in a top quality railroad case with an unusual silvered dial.DSCF0070.jpg

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But this is not Railroad Approved because it is pendant set, and by the 1920's this would not have been accepted for railroad service. So because of this some collectors may have turned it down, but in fact this is a rarer watch than the lever set approved watches. Between 1908 and 1930 just over 80,000 of this Crescent Street grade were produced, but only twenty percent were pendant set.DSCF0071.jpg

Edited by Shiner

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