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Railroad pocket watches

April 19th saw a fast mail train known as No. 4 traveling east on the same track as an accomodation train was going West. Unfortunately the engineer’s watch on the accomodation train had stopped for 4 minutes, and then started up again. The two trains met their destiny at Kipton, Ohio, where both engineers were killed, along with nine others. Masses the disaster, a board was assigned to address up with standards for timepieces that would be adoptive by all railroads.

railroad pocket watches, railways timepiece

What Is An American Railroad Pocket Watch?

The first American passenger railroad engine rolled down the tracks of Baltimore & Ohio Company in 1830. Shortly thereafter when passenger service was placed on a schedule a reliable watch was realized as a requirement by the railroad men.

Over the years the watch companies specialized in providing railroad watches to meet this need. There are over 350 different railroad pocket watches that were made between 1866 and 1969 when the last railroad pocket watch was made in America.

This does not include the numerous varieties of dials and cases used on the railroad watches. Not all of the over one thousand American railroad companies in business from 1830 to the present approved all of these watches for their use. Many railroad companies were specific in identifying only those watches that they wanted there personnel to use.

Some companies were vague in their regulations specifying, “any watch that keeps the correct time” or any 17 jewel watch. Some railroads had no regulations on watches, leaving it up to the employee as to the watch he wanted to buy and use.

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Generally prior to about 1893 the definition of a railroad watch was very vague. The larger railroad companies usually had specific rules, may times prior to 1893, not too rigidly enforced. However on April 19th 1891 there was a disastrous head-on collision between two trains of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway near Kipton, Ohio. There after watch requirements, regulations and inspection systems were more stringent.

In 1893 the railroad standards adopted were generally that any watch going into railroad service should meet these Standards.

Hamilton 940 21 Jewel Motor Barrel  Railroad approved

1893 Railroad Watch Standards

  1. Must be 18 or 16 size.
  2. Have a minimum of 17 jewels.
  3. Be adjusted to 5 positions. (a sixth was added later.)
  4. Keep time plus or minus 30 seconds per week.
  5. Be adjusted to temperature 40 to 95 degrees F.
  6. Must have a double roller.
  7. Must be lever set.
  8. Winding stem at 12 o’clock.
  9. Must have a plain Arabic dial with heavy hands.

There were many exceptions made by the railroad companies when it came to their employees time pieces. For example, you will not find a source that shows the South Bend 219 as a railroad grade watch. There were however a few railroad men who carried this watch as their work watch and it was perfectly satisfactory. The guide below is just a list of what most railroad companies had as standard rules.
South Bend 219

How to Tell if Your Watch is a Railroad Watch?

  • The watch must be 16 or 18 sizes.
  • If it is from the mid 1880’s until around 1900, the watch must be at least 15 jewels, adjusted, and have a patent regulator.
  • If the watch is from 1900 to 1905, it must be at least 17 jewels, have a Breuguet hairspring, a lever set, and Arabic numerals.
  • If it is from 1905 until 1920, it must be adjusted to three different positions, and it must have a grade number or name marked on the movement.
  • If the watch is from after 1920, it has to be at least 19 jewels, and adjusted to five positions.
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