The Railroad Pocket Watch

Train Wreck Image The Railroad Pocket Watch is a distinctive and valuable addition to anyone's collection. This is an article written by antiques writer Mike McLeod, who has kindly given us permission to feature this and other interesting and informative articles in Antique Pocket Watch.


Another area for pocket watch collectors is the Railroad Pocket Watch. On April 19, 1891, a train engineer's watch stopped for four minutes and then started again. This temporary mechanical failure resulted in a train wreck that caused nine casualties in Kipton, Ohio. A commission was set up to create new standards for the railroad pocket watch, to be used by all railroads.

Standards included having at least 15 jewels (after 1886, the amount steadily increased afterwards); being accurate within 30 seconds per week; having a white face (but silvered faces were allowed until the second decade of the 20th century); black Arabic numbers each minute delineated; size 16 or 18; adjusted to five positions; and temperature compensated. (Canadian RR watches, on the other hand, had Roman numerals and an inner ring of Arabic numerals from 13-24 for the p.m. hours.)

The rules were sometimes broken so you can still find a RR watch with Roman numerals. The last two requirements were critical. As the early watchmakers discovered, not only would cold and heat cause the movement to slow or speed up, but so did the watch's position. Imagine trying to carry a watch in one position all the time, especially while working on a train. Railroad watches had to stand up to constant abuse from the jarring and swaying of early trains.

Railroad wreckEngineers were required to have their watches inspected regularly and to submit a certificate stating its reliability to supervisors. The picturesque movie scene of a train conductor looking at his watch and shouting, "All aboard!" does not reflect the true importance of a train staying on schedule. When there was only one track for trains barreling in both directions, being on time was a matter of life and death. As the Kipton wreck proved, an engineer's railroad pocket watch being off by as little as four minutes could mean disaster.

In watch descriptions, a size is usually listed from 0 to 23. There are also key sizes for watches wound with keys. A watch's size is not the width or length of the watch or casing. It's actually a standard measurement for the size of the movement. To meet railroad requirements, a watch's movement must be a size 16 (1 7/10 inches) or a size 18 (1 23/30inches).

Waltham RailRoad Pocket Watch The Railroad Pocket Watch is particularly appealing to collectors for several reasons, even though the faces are very plain. The quality of the Railroad pocket watch was very high, second only to chronometers. Railroad watches were not produced in the same quantities as everyday pocket watches, even though quite a few companies made them. The ephemeral "romance of the railroad" adds to its value.

Young and old are captured by the spirit of the rails, and that same feeling inspires collectors of Railroad watches. Amazingly Railroad watches are quite affordable. A typical watch in fine condition sells for between $300 and $600. The cost has accelerated in the last 24 to 36 months, according to Eric Engh, due to demand from Asian and European collectors.

For collectors, Waltham and Elgin produced the most Railroad watches, so, "You'll need deep pockets for an extensive Waltham or Elgin collection," says Engh. "Another manufacturer, Hamilton, made less than 5 million watches (both RR and non-RR), and that was less than 10 percent of what Waltham and Elgin produced." Both Hamilton and Illinois watches are good quality timepieces, and a collection of all their RR grade watches would total less than 100.

Actor Dom Deluise collects both antique pocket watches and Railroad watches, because, he said, "They take up very little room, and they are beautiful.The beauty, craftsmanship and history of pocket watches make them great collectibles.

Mike McLeod

All pocket watch images on this page reproduced by kind permission of Pieces of Time.

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Other Pages of Interest

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Other Pocket Watch Companies:

The Ball Pocket Watch Co

The Elgin Pocket Watch Co

The Hamilton Pocket Watch Co

The Hampden Pocket Watch Co

The Illinois Pocket Watch Co

The Ingersoll Watch Company

The Howard Pocket Watch Company

Waltham Pocket Watch