Watch Styles: Railroad Watches

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Many of humanity's great inventions were born of necessity. This was particularly true in the 20th century, where the post-industrial world saw an explosion of scientific discovery and technological progress. One invention, which pre-dated the 20th century but became increasingly relied upon, was rail travel. As the demands on the rail network increased, so too was its punctuality and safety required to improve.

At this time, the entire rail network was run on timetables enforced by station masters' clocks and the watches carried by select personnel. These schedules strictly dictated arrivals and departures, as well as gave certain vehicles priority in an attempt to avoid collisions on single-track railways.

The problem was, however, that there was no standardized quality for the clocks and watches being used to enforce these timetables. Furthermore, not every rail worker could afford to own a timepiece. 

Following the tragic Providence & Worcester Railroad head-on collision of August 1853, which was attributed in part to the inaccuracy of an engineer's watch, some of the rail companies in the New England area ordered high-quality clocks for their stations and employees. By May 1872 North American and Canada Railroads were using an established standard time, which was designed to limit the discrepancies that existed between every town, city, and railroad company.

These efforts reached an important milestone in 1879, when Sir Sandford Fleming, chief engineer of the Candian Pacific Railroad, proposed the introduction of Worldwide Standard Time. He also suggested time zones be adopted locally, but should remain secondary to his single 24-hour world time (which he dubbed Cosmic Time). It took a while for the time zone concept to catch on, but the 24-hour clock format and standardization of time for the running of railroads was eventually adopted, with nearly 600 railroads adopting it by 1883. This reduced the number of times in use from 53 to four standardized time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific).

It took another tragedy for the industry to question the cruciality of watch testing. In 1891, a high-speed crash in Elyria claimed nine lives. The cause? An engineer's watch running four minutes slow. As a result of this incident, Webster Ball was appointed General Watch Inspector for several North American, Canadian and Mexican Railroads. Ball went on to found Ball Watch Company, which is still in operation today and is known today for its highly-legible watch dials, illuminated by tritium lume capsules.

Known as the "general railroad timepiece standards", Ball's rules dictate that watches for use on the railways must be open face, size 18 or 16 (which equates to a movement diameter of between 44.87mm and 43.18mm), have at least 17 jewels, be adjusted in a minimum of five positions, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 to +38 grade Centigrade), feature a steel escape wheel, a lever set, micrometric regulation, and a Lépine caliber. These requirements have since been updated many times, and remain of the utmost importance to the safe and efficient running of the railroads.

Of course, very few modern wristwatches would meet all of the original requirements (especially not when it comes to the rather gargantuan sizes dictated by Ball's original manifesto), but modern technology makes keeping accurate time far easier than it was in the early days of railroad operation.

A fascinating chapter in America's history can be celebrated and remembered with a watch inspired by the legible designs made popular by the railroad workers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

If you're interested in owning a railroad-inspired watch, pay close attention to the dials and simplicity. Railroad watches are all about legibility, so go for something with a clean, white face, printed with bold, black Arabic numerals and high-contrast hands. These timepieces have a classic and timeless look that harkens to their importance in history.