What Makes a Railroad Grade Pocket Watch?

Before the ages of autopilot and digital direction, transportation was coordinated in a very manual fashion. In the late 1800s, railroads dominated as the medium of choice in moving freight or travelling citizens across our rapidly growing country. All of these trains meant an ever-moving puzzle of high-speed objects that could be at risk of colliding at any given time; so how would one make sure that didn’t happen?

Trains ran on a set schedule, to the minute at times. Railroad companies created time schedules to identify when sections of track were safe to use; conductors managed these schedules via their pocket watches. In a mechanical era where varying production methods could yield a range of time-keeping performances, a set of “rail road grade” standards emerged and was solidified by W.C. Ball in 1893. Though standards were developing as early as the 1850s, Ball created the lasting gold standard.

Among many manufacture specifics, the main parameters of note require that the watch neither gain nor lose more than 30 seconds/week, it displays it’s numerals in large, plain, black Arabic font over a white dial and that it sets time by an actuated lever setting mechanism or is “lever-set”. The lever is located beneath the threaded bezel; when the bezel is removed and the lever is pulled away from the case, the winding stem engages the hands. This feature is crucial to the overall design as it avoids the possibility of the crown catching on a pocket and, like standard “pendant-set” pocket watches, pulls out thereby stopping the watch.

Some railroad companies created their own standards of timekeeping which, over time, varied slightly with Ball’s but many of the core components remained the same. These watches deemed “railroad grade” have a soft spot in collector’s hearts. Yet another example of precision engineering and vision that stood the test of time.

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