Published Jan. 6, 2004
Nov. 18, 1883: Hundreds of railroad men across the United States simultaneously reset their watches to noon at that hour in each of the new time zones. That was the day the nation adopted Standard Time, something that became a necessity with the increasing distances covered by trains. Until that November day, each town had set its clock by the sun, which was fine when people moved at the speed of hoof or didn’t travel far enough to see a discrepancy between their watch and the time at their destination.
But as local rail lines merged into larger railroads that traversed hundreds of miles, time became a problem. Passenger schedules became complicated messes, people missed trains and accidents occurred. So Standard Time was adopted to establish one time for each zone. And the keeper of that time on the rails was the pocket watch.
The pocket watch is one of the marvels of the machine age that flowered in the 19th century. Mass production and interchangeability of parts allowed the masses to own watches, which in colonial times were individually handmade and prohibitive in cost to all but the wealthy. After the Civil War, pocket watches were produced by the thousands, and their accuracy today after running for decades is a testament to precision manufacturing.
Open the back of a pocket watch, and you are struck by the delicate beauty of tiny mechanical parts working in concert. The main spring wraps around the barrel and is tightened when the watch is wound. The barrel transmits power via pinions to a train of wheels that turn the dials; the ratio of wheel to pinion and pinion to wheel controls the rate of revolution so that one power source turns three hands at different speeds. The final wheel in the train is the escape wheel, which, with the balance wheel, acts as a governor called the escapement. If a timepiece did not have this controlling mechanism, the mainspring would quickly run down like a child’s windup toy. The escapement regulates that power, allowing it to be released in small intervals, so a watch can run for about 36 hours on one winding. All this mechanical grace is complemented by beautiful lettering stamped into the plates that cover the movement. It is similar to the lettering stamped into the steel pen points used at the time, showing a strong connection to fine Spencerian penmanship and calligraphy before typewriters established simple print as the de facto lettering style of succeeding generations.
Pocket watches were used by everyone before wristwatches came along, but they are most associated with railroaders, for good reason. The railroad watch was required to meet manufacturing and performance guidelines, and around 1893, the requirements for all railroads were established by the General Railroad Timepiece Standards Commission. Railroad watches were required to have open faces, rather than a case with a cover, known as a hunter case. Faces were simple, without background decoration, and numerals were Arabic. The watches had to be accurate to within 30 seconds per week and had to function at temperatures ranging from 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Size was to be 16 (1.7 inches) or 18 (1.766 inches), and watches were to have a minimum of 17 jewels, which were used as bearings. In contrast to the simple railroad watch were the chronograph, a watch that included a stopwatch, with several small dials; and the repeater, a watch that chimed at regular intervals. The repeater was mainly a Swiss product, produced in large numbers in the late 19th century but largely disappearing by the 1920s.
Canton, Ohio, was home to the Hampden Watch Company and Dueber Watch Company, which moved from Massachusetts in 1889, and those firms merged in 1923 to form the Dueber-Hampden Watch Company. In 1930, Dueber-Hampden was sold to Amtorg, a Russian firm, and workers from Canton trained Russians in the art of watchmaking. At that time that the wristwatch began its ascent, starting as ornamental jewelry but gaining popularity after its use by military men in World War I, and it surpassed pocket watches by the mid-1930s, its convenience proving irresistible.
The pocket watch, once the favored personal horologe, faded with the fountain pen. Vests and overalls, which had pockets for watches, also faded away. The false pockets on vests are a testament to the supremacy of the wristwatch, and now jeans and Amish breeches are about the only place that watch pockets can be found. Progress makes its demands: Steam gave way to diesel, acoustic music was overrun by electric guitars, and time in the pocket was supplanted by watches on the wrist. But some of us remember …
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