A railway watch or railroad watch is one designed for use by railway workers and conductors. Railway watches usually have Arabic numerals at all 12 hour positions, simple dials and hands, and enhanced accuracy. Many railway pocket watches used a lever setting device rather than crown setting to keep from accidentally disturbing the time.
In the 19th century, before the advent of time zones and standard time, it was common for each railway station to maintain its own clock and time. This was typically standard for the surrounding area but required careful translation and calculation to ensure that trains were on time and no two trains operated on the same tracks at once. Conductors and engineers would typically carry a pocket watch and would set it to the local time at each station stop.
In May 1872 at the meeting of the Association of Railroad Superintendents in St. Louis, the concept of “Standard Time” was introduced to the audience. This was not adopted immediately, but would lead to the modern concept. In February 1879, Sir Sandford Fleming of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) proposed a “Worldwide Standard Time” to reduce confusion for long-distance transport. This was adopted in November 1883, with 600 railroad lines switching from arbitrary local time to a standard based on Greenwich, England, with time zones based on the meridians around the world.
The personal pocket watches used by engineers and conductors caused issues almost immediately, since there was no standard for accuracy, reliability, or legibility. In April 1891, two trains collided head-first in Elyria, Ohio, near Cleveland. The accident, caused by a watch that was running four minutes late, was a dramatic example of the need for better timekeeping devices on the railroads. Cleveland jeweler Webster Ball was selected to create standards for railroad watches and a system of inspection for many North American railroads. He would establish the original Ball Watch Company to provide approved watches to the employees of these railroads.
Ball's standards are as follows
- “Be open face, size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to minimum five positions, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 to +38 grade Centigrade), steel escape wheel, lever set, micrometric regulation, Lépine caliber. Use plain Arabic numbers printed bold and black on a white dial, and have bold and black hands.”
Some railroads additionally required Breguet hairsprings, adjusted to isochronism at 30 degree Fahrenheit, and a minimum of 19 jewels. The Santa Fe Railway, for example, required the following in 1930
- “The regulation watch designated as of 1930 to be standard is described as follows 16 size, American, lever-setting, 19 jewels or more, open face, winding at ‘12', double-roller escapement, steel escape wheel, adjusted to five positions, temperature and isochronism, which will rate within a variation not exceeding 6 seconds in 72 hours tests, pendant up, dial up and dial down, and to be regulated to run within a variation not exceeding 30 seconds per week.”
Most railways around the world adopted similar standards, and companies began producing watches to this standard. Waltham, Hamilton, Longines, and Elgin are well-known for this type of watch, but many other companies offering railway watches, including Cyma, Girard-Perregaux, Omega, Universal, and Zenith.
The Louisiana firm of LB Ferguson patented the first railway dial in 1908, featuring red hour numerals inside a ring of black 5-minute numerals. Notably, the “6” is printed inside the small seconds subdial, a feature that continues to be regarded by purists as critical to a true railway dial. Another popular dial was the Montgomery Safety Dial, which featured all 60 minute numerals in small print around large hour numerals. The Canadian Dial had 24-hour numerals, with 1-12 outside 13-24. This was adopted by the Canadian National Railways, who also used one with 0-11 outside 12-23. Ball introduced a new standard in 1925, now known as the “Box Car Dial”, which uses heavy sans-serif numerals, and this was quickly adopted by most American companies.
Seiko produced the first Japanese railway watch (the Type 19) in 1929 and it became a fixture of the engineer's station that remains to this day. Seiko's railway watches traditionally used simple hour numerals 1-12, with the 6 missing on small seconds models and markers there for each 10-second increment, 10-60. This watch was produced continually in various forms until 1971, with notable changes being simpler construction after World War II and hacking seconds added in 1955. A high-grade center seconds watch was produced in the 1970s, with quartz models added late in the decade. Mechanical railway watches were discontinued by Seiko in 1980 but reissues are occasionally produced today.
In the United States, conductors were required to purchase these watches with their own money, with a system of monthly installments deducted from their paychecks. They could be compelled to submit their watch for service if it fell out of accuracy and would be given a “loaner” to use in the mean time.