In the late part of the 19th century the government of the United States undertook a technology program that would require a level of innovative engineering that would not be seen again until the moon landings. This innovation is still with us today in its original form. In those days the wheels of the domestic economy moved on the rails. The railroad was the only source of rapid, reliable transportation. Cities sprung up around major railroad hubs. Economic prosperity moved from the coasts inland. Hundreds of trains operated daily moving everything from people to money, iron ore to steel. Trains ran on strict timetables. Their motion was the heartbeat of the industrial revolution.

Timetables had the same side effects they do today. Trains could be caught. Trains could be missed. A delay in departure or arrival of a train created a ripple in the system like falling dominos, just as airline delays affect us today. The train that arrives late may have to depart late. Unlike airplanes which are free to move in all three dimensions--trains can only move in one dimension, forward or backward along a fixed path. A late train occupies a track that's been scheduled for a different train, which now has to be shuttled off somewhere else reachable through the actuation of switches ahead of it. If the on-time train is past those switches, its options beyond backing up are limited.

Having two trains on the same track at the same time is not awful if the trains are stationary. Problems arise if they're moving.

The problem is exacerbated by orders of magnitude if the trains are moving in opposite directions.

Timetable errors could put opposite moving trains on the same track with the predictably disastrous results. Around the time of the end of the American Civil War, these crashes were racking up a terrible toll in lives and money.

The culprit was the simple railroad pocket watch. A conductor out on the rails away from the station had only his watch to consult for accurate time. He knew where the train was supposed to be and when. Obviously, he'd get the engineer to pick up the pace if they were falling behind schedule, or to slow down if they were ahead.

The importance of being in a place on time was critical not only because people relied on the trains for transportation--but because trains needed to pass certain track switches at certain times. Pass a switch off schedule, and you may inadvertently wind up on the same track as a slower train ahead of you, or worse, one coming in your direction. In the era before radio communication, two trains heading toward each other would often need to be within earshot to detect each other's presence.

Inaccurate watches were the cause of innumerable minor "disasters", and several head-on collisions.

So the U.S. Government sponsored a program to encourage industry to create very accurate, very durable conductor's watches. Watches would have to keep accurate time to within fractions of a minute per week. They would need to be impervious to temperature swings or the orientation in which they were held. The government would award a large contract to the first company who produced a timepiece to exacting specifications.

Many companies of the day embarked on programs to create this watch. Some notables were the Illinois Watch Company, Waltham, Ball, Hamilton, Elgin, Columbus, Howard. The companies applied the finest engineering talent they could muster to the problem. They created machine tools that could turn screws and gears to exacting tolerances. They reinvented the science of metal-on-metal lubrication, created temperature resistant steels, and pioneered techniques in machine miniaturization still used today.

The winner of the first government contract was the Ball watch company. They provided watches to the railroads, and created a huge stockpile of replacement parts much in the same way the auto industry stockpiles parts for cars.

The effect of the new timepieces was felt almost immediately. Head on collisions became a rarity. The transportation system became predictable. The United States moved into the height of the industrial revolution on its rail system.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this engineering effort is that the work of those craftsmen was so good, their work is still in evidence today. Many of those same railroad pocket watches carried on steam engines at the turn of the 19th century are still running today. What is even more remarkable is that the stockpile of original parts for those watches is also available.

One can purchase an original 21-jewel Ball railroad pocket watch, wind it, and have it keep time to close to its original tolerances. If it breaks, one can send the watch out to a craftsman who will fix it with original 100-year old replacement parts in original unopened packages.

Original railroad pocket watches can be purchased from a variety of on-line watch shops, antique stores, or eBay. The Association of Clock and Watch Collectors runs auctions and swap meets in every major city of the U.S.

In 2002, one may expect to pay between a hundred dollars, to many thousands of U.S. dollars for one of these watches depending on its rarity and condition. Because the watchmakers of the 19th and 20th century did their jobs so well, these watches are everywhere and they still work. Because they are ubiquitous, in all cases, one should expect the hundred-year old watch to run accurately and be usable as a personal timepiece. Watches that do not work are considered nearly worthless.

The watch escapement mechanism is very simple. A barrel contains a mainspring which is wound and provides all the energy potential to make the watch go. The movement of the watch is simply the unwinding of the spring in a controlled manner. The spring in the barrel provides motive pressure through a pinion gear to four gears (called wheels) which are calibrated in size. The barrel drives the center wheel to which the hour hand of the watch is connected. The center wheel drives the so-called third wheel, which in turn moves a pinion mounted concentrically on the center wheel's axis. The minute hand is connected to this pinion. The third wheel drives the fourth wheel onto which is placed the hand counting the seconds. The fourth wheel drives a pinion connected to the escape wheel.

The key to the watch's controlled motion lies in the escapement. If the watch were to be wound and released without an escapement, the spring's energy would be transferred through all the gears which would spin freely. In a matter of a seconds the spring would be completely unwound, and some of the gears broken off their pivots.

The escapement wheel connects to the gear train via a pinion gear on its axle. The head of the wheel does not have teeth like a normal gear. Rather, it has 15 teeth that look like tiny feet. A U-shaped ratchet with two tiny ruby jewels at each of the two prongs of the 'U' (called a pallet) moves back and forth alternately stopping and releasing the tiny feet of the escape wheel, one foot at a time. Under pressure from the mainspring which is transmitted through the gears, the escapement wheel wants to turn. But it is blocked from doing so because the prongs of the U-shaped pallet stop it.

The pallet moves back and forth under the influence of a balance wheel. The balance wheel turns back and forth under the force of a coil-shaped hair spring. It oscillates 150 times per minute. Each time the balance reaches the end of its travel in one direction it moves the ratchet. Each time the ratchet moves, one prong of the 'U' releases one tooth of the escapement wheel while the other prong catches the escapement wheel.

This limits the escapement wheel's motion. It turns 10 times per minute. Each time the pallet releases and catches one of its teeth, it transmits a bit of force back to the balance wheel, which keeps it vibrating back and forth like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. This in turn moves the pallet which releases a tooth in the escapement wheel, and so on.

It is the pallet releasing and catching the escapement wheel that make the watch tick. (Note--a railroad pocket watch ticks 150 times per minute, or 5 times every two seconds.)

Jewels are ruby toroids which fit into holes in the movement's top and bottom plates. The axles of the gears fit into the holes in the center of the ruby "doughnut". With a minute amount of lubricant these jewel-to-axle contacts are very slippery, thus allowing the gears to turn with maximal freedom from friction.

One measure of the "quality" of a watch movement is in how many jewels it has. This is true not only because the jewels make the watch run better, but because the overall level of craftsmanship in a watch with more jewels tends to be better because they were targeted for a more exclusive market in the same way a car capable of 500 bhp would probably target a more exclusive market than one of 200 bhp.

The best watches have all of their key moving parts suspended in jewel-to-metal "bearings". If each wheel in the movement has a jewel at both ends 22 jewels are used. In the finest watches the barrel that contains the mainspring has a big jewel at one side. Thus, the finest watch movements have 23 jewels.

Movements of lesser quality have a fewer number of jewels. Watches with only 7 jewels were made at one point and were very inexpensive (also inaccurate) for their time. In cases where there are no jewels, the axle of the wheel simply fits through holes in the movement upper and lower plates and there is a well lubricated metal-to-metal contact.

When purchasing an antique railroad pocket watch there are many things to consider. First of all, as with any "collection" hobby prices are terribly variable and subject to your ability to negotiate. It is very much an open bazaar environment populated by unscrupulous types who prey on those who are unaware. The cliche, "buy from a reputable dealer" applies.

Collector's Books publishes a yearly "Complete Price Guide to Watches" by Shugart and Gilbert. This is a must to have to establish baseline pricing and is the watch buyer's blue book.

Watches are priced depending on how rare they are, the number of features they have, their condition, whether or not all the parts are original or have been replaced along the way, and regular old supply and demand. Some of the most popular watches have something called a "wind indicator" which is a hand on the watchface indicating how much tension is left in the mainspring. Thus the owner need only look at the indicator to know the watch needs to be rewound before it begins to slow down.

Two things that professionals do not take into account when pricing a watch are who owned the watch before and how spectacular the case is. If you were to have Robert E. Lee's original 14K gold watch, it might have some additional value, based on its historical significance. But barring ownership by a president or a superhero, the "story" of the watch doesn't play into pricing. Similarly, 14K gold cases wear better than gold filled or silver cases, but watches are frequently recased throughout the years, and the street value of a 70-year old, 16 size watch gold case is usually less than its weight in the metal itself.

One should be prepared to examine the watch's movement when purchasing. Is it clean? Are the parts all original, or has someone replaced things along the way? Does it bear the marring of years of errant screwdrivers? How many jewels do you see? Are they cracked? Does the balance wheel move freely? Answers to these questions must affect the price, as the most important point is: even after 100+ years, the watch MUST work to be valuable.

Some key points for the neophyte:

  • Learn standard watch sizes. Standard railroad pocket watches are all 16 size. There are others in different sizes (so-called "ladies" watches might be 10 size) and there are many in 12 size. A real "railroad" watch is 16 size by the original spec.
  • Real railroad watches were spec'ed to have 19 jewels or more. While there are watches that look like railroad watches with 17 or less jewels, these were made as less expensive imitations for the general public.
  • There were no Swiss or Japanese railroad pocket watches. In those days, watches from those two countries were cheap imitations of the American made versions. It would be several decades before Switzerland would become the world's center for watch making.
  • There were no "hunter" case railroad pocket watches. A hunter case has the winding stem at the three o'clock position and a latching, spring loaded cover that is opened by pressing the stem inward. The spec for railroad pocket watches called for the watch to be open faced, with the stem at the 12 o'clock position.

Interest in collecting pocket watches has soared in the past 10 years, and prices have climbed accordingly for the most desired pieces. Among these are any 23 jewel Ball model, especially those with wind indicators, as well as the 23 jewel Illinois "Sangamo" models. These watches will fetch close to $4,000 US in reasonable condition. (Ten years ago when I began collecting and repairing railroad watches, those same pieces were closer to $1,000 at auction.) Wingate's in Texas has a nice website with a fast moving inventory on display. They are quite reputable, though their prices reflect that reputation.

A hobby that is both interesting and accessible to many is in the repair of these fine timepieces. It is well within the skill of someone who is used to building models or working with electronics to purchase a non-functioning railroad pocket watch and to bring it back to working order with a few simple tools and a couple of patient hours.

Many original replacement parts for these watches can be purchased from companies like S. LaRose, or J. Borel. They own most of the manufacturer's original replacement part stock. As the watches tended to be extremely reliable, and so many replacement parts made, there are warehouses filled with these parts.

Watch repair tools are available on the net. And there is a never-ending supply of broken watches on the likes of eBay and private on-line watch enthusiast auction blocks. Prices on the order of tens of dollars, to a couple hundred dollars are not unusual.

The would-be watch repairer will need a set of jeweler's screwdrivers, a tweezer, a puller to remove the hands from the watch, cleaning solution and an ultrasonic cleaner, a small vise to stabilize the movement under repair, a magnifier (if the eyes are failing) and a clean place to work. For very extensive repairs, a staking and or jeweling set may be necessary. All of these items are available from the companies I mentioned above.

The truely adventurous might try machining watch parts to original spec. Jeweler's lathes are hard to find and very expensive, and so one usually tries to find used ones at auction where they're bid to outrageous prices and scarfed-up quickly. However, a company called Sherline makes miniature metal working tools (lathes and presses) for the model building hobby, and I have successfully used one of their lathes to machine pinions for watch gears.

The premier supplier of watch repair tools is Bergeon in Switzerland. At the minimum, a set of their screwdrivers will last one a lifetime.

There are numerous books on pocket watch repair. I recommend "The Watch Repairer's Manual" by Henry B. Fried. It will lead you through a step-by-step stripdown of a pocket watch to its constituent parts, and reassembly. There is also an extensive troubleshooting section which lists common ailments and their cures.

It's very satisfying to me to take a watch which has been dormant in someone's attic for the past 75 years and bring it back to life, hearing it tick as it did for its original owner when my grandparents were young. And it's a testament to the 19th century engineers who designed these watches that it's even remotely possible to do that. Consider how few Timex watches from the 60's and 70's are still in use, and when you realize they're as rare and harder to fix than a watch 90 years older, you begin to understand the craftsmanship that went into these tiny machines.

References/Reading List: "The Watch Repairer's Manual" by Henry B. Fried "Watch Repairing" by F.J. Garrard "Practical Watch Repairing" by Donald de Carle "Advanced Clock and Watch Repair" by H.G. Harris The Bulletin of the Association of Clock and Watch Collectors "The Mart" published by The Association of Clock and Watch Collectors