In 1891, two trains collided head-on in Ohio because a conductor’s watch was off by four minutes. The evident need for better accuracy and the watches that stemmed from this need is just part of the interesting story of the railroad’s intersection with horology. More close to home for our modern lives, however, is how railroads also brought concepts of time into the modern era with the introduction of a single Standard Time, and the time zones we live by today. Naturally, precise watches were a big part of making all this possible.
Looking back at how trains as a new technology in the 1800s affected the way people conceptualized time also provides some unique insight into just how transformative this era of history was, how far we’ve come, and the development of watches. Within a century, many people transitioned from living by local time based on the sun to a calculated, mechanical time that was less seasonably and locally variable — but this got messy along the way, as some people worked to devise new systems while others resisted change.
Even as the calculated average length of a day (“mean time” or “clock time”) became the standard rather than “solar time,” people set their watches against a local standard, such a clock in a jeweler’s window or a church steeple. Those clocks were, in turn, regulated to a sundial — meaning local time would differ from place to place even within a small country like Britain, where many early developments in horology and railroads took place. One town being seven minutes ahead or behind its neighbor wasn’t really a big deal until trains made it possible to travel between locations quickly, and railway timetables required more precision and coordination.
Train schedules gave rise to a standardized time followed by railroads, and the Great Western Railway in England was the first to standardize its timetable in the 1840s. In many cases, however, each railroad independently followed its own standard, and towns maintained their own local times as well. This created some odd situations, such as that of two clocks side by side showing railroad time and (“correct”) local times minutes or more apart, and even the odd sight of watches with two minute hands!
Naturally, this situation also led to a lot of confusion. In the United States, when a new Standard Time System was implemented in 1883, instituting the time zones in use today, it replaced 49 different operating times. Later, Greenwich in England was designated the Prime Meridian to which all others referred. The Royal Observatory was first designated the standard in England and was later followed by the world’s other nations, partly because its hyper-accurate clock was the basis for time signals sent around the world by telegraph.
Accurate watches and clocks were critical to making the railroads function efficiently and safely. A single track was often shared by trains going in either direction with the ability to pass each other only at stations and designated sidings. So, if the timing was off, it could lead to deadly accidents like the well-publicized one in Ohio in 1891 — though other such incidents were reported around the world. After the Ohio collision, a Cleveland jeweler named Webster C. Ball became Official Watch Inspector and Time Keeper for six railroads. He was the founder of the Ball Watch Company that continues to make watches today that reference its railroad history.
Ball developed a system for ensuring the railroad clocks and watches carried by railroad employees were consistent and precise. Other railways around the country and the world instituted similar systems. Railroads used high-quality “standard clocks” at major stations that were regulated daily against telegraph-transmitted time signals, and employees were required to regularly set their watches to them — along with a complex set of related procedures to ensure everybody’s watches were accurate, mechanically sound, in-sync, and railroad-approved. The need for precision and reliability led to highly precise watches from American companies like Ball, Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin, and others.
Like the military specifications or dive watch ISO standards that dictate watches’ features and result in recognizable traits for these specialized tools, there were similarly specifications for railroad watches. Early on, the 1893 General Railroad Timepiece Standards required watches to have a “plain white dial, bold black hands, and bold black Arabic numbers,” as well as a winding stem at 12 o’clock, with cases of specified sizes (around 45mm or 43mm), among a list of other specs.
Standards for these watches evolved over time, right into the age of wristwatches, and these led to some beautiful, interesting, and mechanically impressive watches. One specification that remained consistent well into the 20th century, for example, was an accuracy within 30 seconds per week — that’s around 4 seconds per day, which is pretty good even for modern mechanical watches. Railroads today still require employees to be equipped with approved watches, though these requirements are easily and inexpensively met.
As just about every watch brand digs through its history for inspiration, diving watches, pilot watches, sporty chronographs, and military watches of all kinds tend to hog all the sex appeal. There are, however, still some modern brands that recall the fascinating and pivotal place of the 19th century’s iron giants and the little machines that kept them running on time. Below are some of the most notable such watches you can buy today.
Mondaine Official Swiss Railways Stop2Go
Based on the design of clocks found in Swiss railway stations, Mondaine watches are classic and stylish. The brand does offer mechanical watches of a similar design, but this quartz-powered version features a twist: just like the Mondaine railway clocks from which it takes inspiration, the Stop2Go stops at zero for two seconds before jumping ahead. This is used to help railroad employees synchronize their watches.
Hamilton has a history as a significant American watch maker well known for its role in the railroad. The Hamilton Railroad is meant to recall that heritage but with a modern design and an automatic movement, offering 80 hours of power reserve for a truly reasonable price.
Ball Trainmaster 60 Seconds
The Trainmaster from Ball seems to most genuinely recall the dial design of railroad standard pocket watches from the 19th century, while updated in size and adapted for the modern wrist. The brand has made a number of versions and collections worth exploring that offer some interest to those who appreciate the brand’s role in railroad history.
Omega’s Railmaster references a different period of railway history, having been designed to protect the movement specifically from the magnetic fields encountered by railroad staff in the 1950s. Its modern version features Omega’s cutting-edge technology and is antimagnetic to 15,000 gauss.
Some watch enthusiasts may scoff at the idea of putting a $15 strap on an expensive timepiece, but NATOs are a fun, functional and quickly interchangeable way to show off your watch. While the straps have become fairly ubiquitous, their origin can be traced back to a single point in history. Read the Story