Railroad watches were arguably the highest grade watches made, only surpassed in time keeping quality by presentation watches and navigational chronometers. However, just what is a railroad watch?
Railroad watches, commonly called "standard watches" by the railroad industry, (because they met the railroad's standard), are watches that were accepted for railroad time service. At first, different railroads accepted different watches. While some railroads listed specific makes and grades as acceptable, others just listed requirements. The requirements differed from decade to decade. Also, "grandfathered" watches--those that were permitted to remain in service--as opposed to those newly entering service, varied from railroad to railroad and from decade to decade.
The Pennsylvania Rail Road purchased watches and published this rule:
"Each engineer will be furnished with a watch which shall be regulated by the Station Agent at the commencement of each trip and must be deposited with him when the engine returns. If not returned in as good order as it was received, the Engineer must pay the expense of repairs."
Conductors, however, furnished their own timepieces. This practice of loaning out watches to engineers was dropped shortly thereafter, most likely because the watches were starting to find their way into pawn shops
Within a few short years, the 15-jewel standard watch, still accepted for entering service on many railroads, was an economic disaster. In 1894, Waltham, just after introducing the 17-jewel Vanguard Model '92, was forced to add upper and lower center jewels to the 15-jewel model `83's remaining in inventory, and engrave them to be 17-jewel watches in order to dispose of them. It was toward the later half of this decade that higher jeweled watches, those having 21 jewels or more, were introduced.
Although the 18 size watches were the industry workhorse during this period, new 16 size watches began to appear in massive quantities. Hamilton's 992 was the most successful of these with over 100,000 sold in just a few short years. Despite Ball's rules for the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Division of the P.R.R., the move towards tighter requirements occurred. By 1908 the widely known and familiar requirements were almost universally in place:
(General - not from any specific set of rules)
American made 18 or 16 size
Fitted with 17 or more jewels
Adjusted to 5 positions
Timed to +/- 30 sec/week
Fitted with a:
- Double roller
- Patented regulator
- Steel escape wheel
Plain while dial (but "Silvered" dials were allowed through the teens) having:
- Black Arabic numerals
- Each minute delineated
Configured with the winding stem at 12 O'clock
As for the 16-size watch, the 21-jewel model would be accepted for service for the next 30 years.
April 1, 1949
The minimum standard of WATCHES NOW IN SERVICE is a grade equal to what is known among American Railroad Movements as "NICKEL 17-JEWELS, BREGUET HAIRSPRING, PATENT REGULATOR, LEVER SET, ADJUSTED TO TEMPERATURE AND THREE POSITIONS," that will run within a variation of thirty seconds per week.
The post-war watches reduced down pretty quickly to the Waltham grade 1623 Vanguard, the Hamilton 992B (and Ball 999B) and the Elgin grade 571 B.W. Raymond. There were a few others, but hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of these three watches were built in the post war era.
Hamilton outlasted both Elgin and Waltham by a number of years. In doing so, it managed to produce the last railroad standard pocket watch to be made in the U.S., the 992B. This watch was in continuous production from 1941 to 1969. At that time, all Hamilton manufacturing in the U.S. ceased. At over 500,000 made, the 992B had the second largest production quantity of U.S.-built standard pocket watches, exceeded only by the original 992.
The next best thing after the 992 from Hamilton and the best known RR grade pocket watch of all time is the 992B from a bit later in history. Some differences noticeable are pressed jewels and the solid gold plate bridges on the escape wheel and pallet fork.
Good time for this model watch was +/- 30 seconds each week. Even if a watch is 99.9% accurate, it may well still be off by a minute and a half in only 24 hours. The Hamilton movement's accuracy is about 99.9977%, or +/- 3 seconds a day. A modern quartz watch is 99.9998% accurate, or +/- 1 second a day.