If you have read any of my other posts on this website. then you will have heard me rave about the Elgin railroad pocket watch. They always conjure up great memories from my childhood. Those old films that had railroads in them.
They were typically old cowboy and Indian films. Those were something I looked forward to every Saturday afternoon. The films were of course rather exciting. Some forty years ago there was plenty of action in them. However I was also fascinated as they had pocket watches included in them.
There was just something about those watches with the gold chain disappearing into a waistcoat pocket that made me want to own one. As a child my parents bought me a pocket watch, to simply shut me up and I and my friends were fascinated with it.
It was only in later life that I started to research the history of watches and in particular the history of pocket watches. It was at this time I got really interested in Elgin watches.
Elgin Railroad Pocket Watch – The First Watch
This was a B.W. Raymond watch and was first made in the year 1867. This was an “18” size watch and was named after the President of the Company at the time. It had large numerals and at that time to buy one would have cost you a cool $120.
As you can imagine that was a huge amount of money at the time. I think what was also interesting at the time is that all the Elgin railroad pocket watch ranges were actually sold just as the actual interior movement. Customers buying one of these would then have to take it to watch repair shop or a jeweller to have it fitted into a case.
There were two key benefits to the B.W.Raymond watch which were that it was isochronous (kept great time even when the wind up process was running down) and would perform well in all temperatures. This was something that was very unique because up until that point, pocket watches had neither of these two very important qualities. Clearly these were important attributes to have especially when it came to accurate time keeping in any type of weather conditions.
Elgin Railroad Pocket Watch – Influence of the Railroads
The railroad watches after this continued to develop and become better in terms of movements, accuracy and great time keeping. It is always an interesting thing to understand that railroads were actually at the forefront of trying to standardise time keeping at the turn of the nineteenth Century.
It is pretty obvious to state that having trains run on time and avoid train crashes was high on their agenda and having accurate time pieces was central to achieving that.
This actually became quite detailed and included the railways detailing the specifications and included detail such as the types of adjustments, winding mechanisms and the number of jewels. Strange as it may seem in these modern days, back then watches would stop working if they were not held in certain positions. When the railroads got involved this was one of the key specifications they had to fix and get right.
A lot of people get confused about the jewels and their actual purpose in any watch. The only purpose they really have is to reduce friction. Without jewels we would have scenario of metal grinding on metal. When a jewel is inserted between the metal moving parts it takes away the friction and allows for the smooth running of the time piece.
It gets highly technical when you start discussing jewels but it can make the difference between a poorly made watch and a higher quality watch. Standard watches should have around 17 to 23 jewels and in the best watches every moving part would have a jewel. There should also be one at the back, one at the front and what are called cap jewels to stop the movement going up or down.
The Elgin railroad pocket watch was modified and changed until they met the high specification of the railroad demands. Hopefully you can now understand just how much influence these railroad companies actually had. It was around the turn of the twentieth Century that many companies including Waltham and Elgin were producing top quality pocket watches.
These watches had been made to what were termed “railroad” standards. These started with what were termed size 18 watches and then with size 16 watches. The railroads also stated that as a minimum they had to have at least 19 jewels, work in any temperature, in any position,have what is called a lever set and also be open faced.
Such was the influence of the railroads that they actually provided recommended and approved lists of watch manufacturers. In addition these watches were regularly inspected by contracted jewellers to the railroad.
You will probably be aware that an engineer is the actual driver on the train but back in those days it was not only the driver but the actual conductor who had responsibility for the time keeping of the train and the safety of the passengers.
The driver could only leave the station when the conductor had told the driver to do so. You can see just how important it was that the driver and conductor had synchronised timing. They did this by setting their pocket watches against a very accurate clock in the train station and they would then have done a visual check before departing on their journey.
Railroad employees regularly had their watches checked and maintained and had to carry a log book to ensure this process was audited. The importance of having a top quality pocket watch of a very high grade actually became a bit of a status icon for many of the workers who made it a prime purpose to own the best watch they could afford.
An Elgin watch was one that would have been highly sought after and there were other great manufacturers such as Waltham, Hamilton and several others.
The other single most important issue was that these pocket watches were to be what is known as open-faced. That simply meant that the face of the watch had to be visible and not covered up in any way. So as you can hopefully see from this article the railroads had a major impact on the creation and development of pocket watches dating right back to the eighteenth Century.