Having A Ball: My Swiss Railroad Pocketwatch from 1950

In looking back over my blog, it kind of shocks me that in eight years almost, of writing this crazy thing, I have not once, ever made a blog-posting about one of my favourite and most prized possessions – which I think is pretty ridiculous, considering it’s one that I carry almost every single day, and have done for the past seven years.

I have mentioned it in passing in one or two of my other blog posts, probably, but I never went into detail about it, so that’s what I’m going to do now.

My Swiss-made Ball Railroad Pocketwatch

One of my most prized possessions for nearly 10 years is this pocketwatch, manufactured in Switzerland by the Record Watch Company, for the famous Ball Watch Company of Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States. In this posting, I’ll be going into detail about what this watch is, and what makes it unique, or different. So, let’s get started.

It’s Swiss but it’s American but it’s…wah…??

Yeah it can get pretty confusing, I know! The lettering on the dial quite clearly says “BALL OFFICIAL RR STANDARD / CLEVELAND”. This was the decal used by the Ball Watch Company of Cleveland, Ohio, a company which distributed watches to various American and Canadian railroad companies from the 1890s up to the end of about the 1950s. While the Ball name became famous for accuracy, ruggedness and high quality, one thing that Ball was not famous for was…making watches!

I know, crazy isn’t it? One of the most important watch companies in the world made no watches! Nope! In fact, the vast majority of Ball-branded watches were actually made by other companies, sold to Ball, and were then re-branded as Ball watches and then sold to the public (or to people working on the railroads). Companies included Elgin, Illinois, and Waltham, to name just a few.

…So why was this made in Switzerland?

Well after the Second World War, the American watchmaking industry really started to fall apart. It wasn’t able to effectively compete against European watchmakers and bad management and marketing decisions made by various company executives meant that the output and quality of watches made in the United States in the 50s and 60s started to falter. By the 1970s, almost none of the traditional American watchmaking firms was still in operation. More and more work, and eventually, whole companies, were sent out to Europe to fulfill orders and keep up with manufacturing, rather than do it in America.

That is why an American watch ended up being made in Switzerland.

Blued-steel hands on the dial were a common feature of antique pocketwatches. The heat-treatment applied to the hands to prevent rusting tinted the steel a dark, navy-blue/purple colour.

What is this Watch?

This watch is a Swiss-made Ball-Record Model 435c. In terms of the railroad pocketwatch – a specially designed pocketwatch used by people who worked on railroads between about 1890-1960, this watch represented not only the pinnacle of the style, but also the end of it. It was one of the last major-production railroad pocketwatches still produced in the 1940s and 50s after the Second World War.

Who Used This Watch?

The Ball-Record 435-series of Swiss-made pocketwatches were manufactured as railroad-standard, meaning that they could be used, theoretically, on any railroad operating on the North American continent. This particular watch, however, was likely used in Canada, and specifically, on the Canadian Pacific Railroad.  I think this for two reasons:

1). The watch has a 24-hour dial. This was a feature which was only mandatory on Canadian-use railroad pocketwatches. America, for whatever reason, never had this as part of their railroad watch regulations.

2). The Ball-Record 435-series is actually listed in Canadian Pacific Railroad documentation as being an officially-approved timepiece. In the 1957 listings of approved CPR timepieces, it’s entered as: “BALL – 16s [16-size], 435C, 21j [21 jewels]”. And that’s how I know!

What is a Railroad Pocketwatch?

Alright, so that’s the watch. What is a railroad pocketwatch, and what makes such a watch what it is?

I covered this in much greater detail in the blog posting I did years and years ago, which is also the first, last and until now, only time I’d ever mentioned the watch which is the focus of this article. If you want to read that posting, it’s here. 

But to sum up really fast:

The railroad chronometer, or railroad-standard pocketwatch was a specialised timepiece developed in the late 1800s to combat the very serious issue at the time, of railroad punctuality, and by extension – safety. Remember that this was a time before radio, before telephones, before GPS tracking and electronic sensors. The only way to know where a train was, at least in theory, supposed to be, was to know what time it was. And the only way you could do that was if everyone had the same time. And the only way you could do THAT was to ensure that everybody working on the railroads had the most accurate watches available.

After a series of disastrous train-wrecks in the United States in the second half of the 1800s, safety was ramped up, and in 1891, Webster C. Ball was made the Time Inspector for railroads in the United States. A jeweler and watchmaker of renown, Ball established the watch company which now bears his name, and was the first person to try and set nationally-recognised standards for railroad watches. Every watch had to have these features in it. They were updated and changed throughout time, but by the early 1900s, they were pretty much standardised. These criteria were numerous, but they were:

  • A large watch. 16 or 18 size. (18 size was later considered too large, and railroaders could trade them in for a smaller, more comfortable 16, if they wanted to. 18s were jokingly called ‘woodburners’ since only the old-timer railroad men, who operated wood-burning locomotives held onto them!)
  • Open-faced. No hunter-case lid to cover the dial.
  • Crown-wind, lever set. For ease of maintenance and safety in time-setting.
  • At least 17 jewels. This was raised to 19, 21 and 23 jewels as time went by. But basically, 17-23 was considered RR-grade.
  • Bimetallic balance-wheel for coping with temperature-extremes.
  • Six position adjustments so that the watch kept time in all possible orientations.
  • Temperature-variance adjustments, so that the watch kept time no matter how hot or cold it was (34-100’F, in case you’re wondering).
  • Isochronism (mainspring-tension variance and the ability of the watch to keep time regardless thereof).
  • Bold, easily read numbers, and easily-read minute-markers.
  • Bold, easily read hands.
  • Micro-regulator for precise calibration.
  • American-made watches ONLY (some leeway was given for European-made watches, so long as parts were commonly available).

That is the list of basic regulations. As time went by, more were added, but those were the starter-points. Along with all the regulations about the watches, there were loads of regulations about how they were to be used, and how they were to be serviced! Among other things…

  • The owner, a railroad employee, could not set the time himself. He was responsible for winding his watch and nothing else. Time-setting in the event of letting the watch run down, or from inaccuracy, was only done by the time-inspector for that railroad.
  • The watch had to keep time to +/-30sec a week, or about +/-4sec a day.
  • The owner was not allowed to tinker, repair, adjust or regulate the watch in any way whatsoever.

As you can imagine, with all these regulations, railroads, and the men who operated them, became famous for their punctuality and accuracy of timekeeping. From the late 1800s up to the 1950s, if you needed to know THE time, you asked an engineer, a station-master, or a railroad conductor. Almost certainly, he’d have the right time in his pocket, down to the minute, perhaps even the second!

Railroad watches died out after the Second World War. Improved wristwatches and improved signaling systems meant that railroad pocketwatches were no longer needed as much as before. By the 1960s, they had almost all gone.

Do you use this watch every day?

Um…Yeah, most days, yes! When I’m not using it, it hangs on a little brass stand on my desk. When I do use it, it’s on the end of a chain in my waistcoat pocket or inside the watch-pocket on my jeans or trousers. It’s big, it’s easy to read, and it’s also a great conversation-piece! I don’t think I’d ever trade it for anything else in the world…except for a nicer railroad watch! But I don’t think that’d be happening anytime soon.


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