It was pocket watches, specifically a Columbus Watch Company pocket watch, that got me interested in watch collecting. The watch was made 130 years ago within walking distance of my home. I never realized Columbus had a watch company and started researching it.
But it was Ray MacDonald that got me interested in this Howard watch. He called it the Patek Phillippe of American pocket watches. I was amazed. It does show incredible workmanship. And, though I could never afford a Patek, I could afford this Howard!
(Seller's pics... more later!)
The driving force behind this watch was the railroad industry. After the Civil War, American railroads exploded. They replaced rivers as the main mode of transportation and became an everyday part of life. They forced the 1883 standardization of time zones (in the US) to simplify scheduling.
Most rail lines were single track. Two way operations were done by scheduling one train to switch off the mainline onto a siding while another train passed. This required accurate timekeeping. But in 1891 a four minute error in an Engineer’s watch caused a wreck that resulted in the death of nine people in Ohio.
To address the problem the railroad hired W.C. Ball, a Cleveland jeweler. On his recommendation they adopted a minimum standard that all watches used by Engineers, Conductors, and other trainmen needed to meet. Ball went on to codify the 1893 General Railroad Timepiece Standards and the Railroad Watch came into being.
A Railroad Standard Watch has two basic objectives: Accuracy and Usability. In general most standards encompassed the following:
- 18 or 16 size
- Fitted with 17 or more jewels
- Temperature compensated
- Adjusted to 5 positions
- Lever Set
- Timed to +/- 30 sec/week
- Fitted with a: Double roller, Patented regulator, Steel escape wheel
- Have plain white dial with: Black Arabic numerals, Each minute delineated
- Open face
- Configured with the winding stem at 12 O’Clock
A further refinement was the Montgomery Dial developed by Henry S. Montgomery for the Santa Fe Railway System. It requires each minute be numbered, every 5 minutes to be in red, and the 6 hour to be marked even if it is in the seconds subdial.
The resultant Railroad Grade watch is an accurate, very readable and very usable time keeper which the employee was expected to buy with their own money. (The railroads conducted regular inspections to assure all watches being used met Railroad Standards.)
The specific example I have is a Howard Series 11, a 21 jeweled watch built in Boston MA specifically as a Railroad Standard watch. Indeed the movement is labeled as a Railroad Chronometer. It has a simple Keystone case which lacks any ornamentation and is only 10KT RGP. It is a working man’s watch which an Engineer or Conductor had to pay $100 to buy in 1913, the approximate manufacture date. In 1913 that was more than a month’s wages for its buyer. (The low cost case in this example kept the price down but this was still one of Howards’ more expensive watches. A 14KT solid gold case on this movement only doubled the price. The base movement was expensive.) The watches were often bought on credit. So nothing fancy, just the basics – except for the movement.
The movement is a thing of beauty and a joy forever… Built to last… Built to be accurate. This Howard times today as follows:
===========Rate===== Amplitude====Beat Error
Crown Up:==== +7======= 187========= 0.0
Crown Right:== -23======= 161========= 0.2
Crown Left:=== +20======= 187=========0.0
Dial Up:====== +6======= 150========= 0.2
Dial Down:==== +7======= 140========= 0.1
After 95 years it is still pretty healthy but it is not meeting Railroad Specifications and needs adjusting… I’ll see if my watchmaker wants to take on that task. He might just for the fun of working on a Howard. Then again, I might not be able to afford it (see the thread on adjusting!).
Of all my watches, this is the easiest to read. It feels good. The only finishing is the knurling around the edge of the face and back… and that too is functional, allowing one to unscrew those faces.
As a regular and moderator in HEQ I find it interesting I now have a watch which not only won’t hack but which also must be partially disassembled to set the time. For sure, no Conductor was going to accidently change the time of a Railroad Grade watch. It requires a deliberate act.
But they did not have to set the time very often. The specification of +/- 30 seconds per week means at most once a week. Usually they would sync to a Station Clock which was kept in sync with a master clock via telegraph.
An interesting aside, the only Swiss manufacturers who were able to build watches high grade enough to make Railroad Grade were Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. But most of the high end American makers made a line of Railroad Grade watches… even the Columbus Watch Company. The Howard Series 11 is certainly one of the best. And this one is a good example of one actually used for its intended purpose – keeping Railroad Time!