Many collectors feel that American watchmaking reached its pinnacle with the invention of the railroad watch. In an effort to meet the stringent and rigorous demands of the railroads, where the incorrect time could and did prove disastrous, American watchmakers were called upon to make a watch that was incredibly reliable and incredibly accurate — far more so than any watch previously being manufactured. And they met the challenge! Following years of development, by the turn of the 20th century American watch factories were producing pocket watches of unsurpassed quality. Watches that would lose no more than 30 seconds per week. Watches that were specially adjusted to keep accurate time no matter what position in which they were held, and in both cold weather and hot. Watches where all the major wheels were jeweled in order to prevent wear from long hours, days, years and decades of constant use.
The main requirement for a railroad watch was, of course, that it be accurate. Throughout the twenty years from 1890 to 1910, the various railroads’ watch standards evolved, demanding more stringent adherence to safety and good timekeeping principles. Although minor local differences remained, these standards eventually became well enough established and accepted so that watch companies could build, at reasonable cost, both 18 size, and later 16 size, watches that would be accepted on any railroad. The standards continued to evolve, and by the 1930’s, only size 16 watches were approved, and these watches had to also have at least 19 jewels, be lever set, open face and adjusted to five positions, temperature and isochronism. Some railroads, however, continued to accept watches that were currently in use and which had previously been approved under earlier standards.
Not all watches that were built to meet the railroad standards were actually accepted for service on all railroads. Many railroads published their own lists of “approved” watches, and these lists varied from one railroad to the next. Thus, it is possible to have a railroad “grade” watch that was never actually railroad “approved.” Even if a watch wasn’t specifically listed as “approved” for a particular railroad, however, there were also instances where a particular watch was accepted for service by the inspector out in the field and would thus still be considered “railroad approved.”
The official railroad standards were only the minimum standards that a railroad grade watch had to meet, and many pocket watches that were approved for railroad service were actually made to higher specifications than required for a “railroad grade” watch. Many companies produced extra fine railroad watches that had 21-23 jewels [sometimes more!] that were adjusted to six positions instead of just five, and even had extra “wind indicator” dials to let you know how much the watch was currently wound. These watches are especially prized by many collectors as being the absolute best of the best.
Remember, just because a watch has a picture of a locomotive on the dial or the case doesn’t mean it is actually a “railroad” watch. The same is true with watches that are just marked “railroad special” or the like. A true railroad grade watch MUST meet the specifications set out for railroad watches, and a true railroad approved watch MUST have been either listed by one or more railroads as approved for railroad service or else specifically accepted by a railroad inspector. Some of the more commonly found railroad grade and approved watches include the Hamilton “992,” the Illinois “Bunn Special” and the Waltham “Vanguard,” although there are quite a few more out there. If you are considering paying a lot for a “railroad” watch, though, just be sure you’re getting what you are paying for.