Sporting Precision – Watches and Watchmakers Prior to 1900


ElginMachinesAt the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence the term “watchmaker” was actually a misnomer. In those days no watches were built in the US and a watchmaker’s activities were restricted to selling and servicing watches, which were imported from the UK, Switzerland and possibly France. What little manufacturing of timepieces took place in this country then was focused solely upon clocks.

It comes as no surprise that US watchmaking pioneers were predominantly of British, but also French or German descent—judging by their name alone, either could also have been Swiss—with the odd Dutch among them for good measure. While the pioneers of the Wild West risked everything in the quest for land and territory, this variety’s quest was the advancement and the industrialization of the technology of their day, which would eventually provide generous returns for some and jobs for tens of thousands. The end of Napoleonic Wars was their daybreak, the beginning of the Civil War the certainty of their future success. Their efforts are conspicuously in tandem with the country’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, so much so that one should regard them as major protagonists of this development and technological progress in the US right up until the Second World War.

The Years Leading up to The Civil War

A first serious attempt at manufacturing watches in the US was made by Luther Goddard in Shrewsbury, MA. It was a challenge of wits and of will. Supplies were either imported from Britain or styletrendspocketwatch1Switzerland, or he had to make them himself. Consider the metallurgical complexity involved in the production of a basic watch component such as, for example, a hair-spring, and it becomes very clear that Goddard’s production of 500 watches by the time he retired 1817 is an achievement indeed.

The example of the Pitkin brothers John, Walter, James and Henry, all silversmiths and watch repairmen from Hartford, CT, illustrates the hardship involved in setting up a watch factory during the days of the 1837 financial crisis. They were the first to manufacture a machine-made watch in the US, the famed Pitkin Watch, which had a reputation for accuracy and durability. Considering the limitations of supplies, skills and manufacturing experience, their production of 800 units bordered on a super-human accomplishment.

While the Pitkin brothers were struggling, an exceptionally talented watchmaker from Brunswick, ME by the name of Aaron L. Dennison had the opportunity to witness how muskets were manufactured at the armory in Springfield, MA. It confirmed a concept he’d been wondering about for quite some while: the mechanized production of interchangeable parts that would eventually become known as the American System of Manufacturing. In 1846 Dennison prophesied that only twenty years on, watches in the US would be made by a process of similar “expedition that fire-arms were made.”

At a time when the watchmaking industry was in its experimental phase, it took the forward-thinking Dennison three years to come across a likeminded professional. Edward Howard was an accomplished Boston clockmaker with a reputation of building clocks that were second to none. He also had a volume of inventions to his name, which included things such as balances and fire-engines. Dennison managed to convince Howard that there was a future in watches, never mind the rest. Dennison’s first move was a trip to the watch districts of Britain to investigate trade practices and establish a network of suppliers. In Britain, he had witnessed first-hand how, too often, Old World conservatism stood in the way of adopting new methods and confidently concluded it would be no match for stylepocketwatch2American practicality and innovation. Howard, in the meantime, had not been idle and erected a factory building a couple miles south of downtown Boston in Roxboro, MA, which was completed in 1850.

But Dennison and Howard’s efforts were only preparations for business, and not business itself. They had yet to create anything of tangible value, let alone income. In their enthusiasm, Dennison and Howard came up with prototypes of watch movements that were ahead of their time. But this consumed company funds and the two realized they would have to settle for something more mundane. They changed the company name several times, and the movements produced bore the company name of the day. So absorbed was the company in establishing itself that it inadvertently undermined the coherence of its marketing and its image.

There are several reasons the factory was moved a few miles north-east to Waltham, MA, the main one being the dust in the Roxboro area which adversely affected operations. The Waltham Improvement Company was incorporated in 1854 with a capital of $ 100,000. Output and sales were insufficient, and the company had to be put up for sale three years on. The Panic of 1857 made matters just as hard for the new owners and soon only one of them, Royal E. Robbins, was left standing by the company. In a drawn out effort to avert financial ruin he made every conceivable concession to humor the Boston bankers.

The hardship of those years had caused many employees at Waltham to question their loyalty. While Dennison resigned at the beginning of the Civil War, others had quietly built a factory in Nashua, NH, in preparation for producing watches to higher standards than at Waltham. By the time the first 1000 units were ready for market, capital had dried up and the Nashua factory had to be put up for sale.

From The Civil War to The Turn of The Century

Until now, the pioneers of the US watch industry had faced headwinds at every step and turn. With the outbreak of the Civil War, it seemed as though a spell had been broken and fate began, although hesitantly, to smile upon to those who had endured.

The Waltham Improvement Company’s name was changed to The styleUSmovementAmerican Watch Company to broadcast its activity as clearly as possible. Perseverance from the days of the Waltham factory was beginning to pay and while sales could have been better, The American Watch Company was beginning to reap recognition at home and abroad. A couple years later, The American Watch Company was able to acquire the Nashua, NH factory. An unexpected development during the Civil War was that many of The American Watch Company’s skilled employees went to the aid of the nation. Of those who returned, many were amputees no longer capable of working under former conditions. However, demand for timepieces in the affordable price range picked up and management responded by substituting those who had gone south with less skilled workers.

Meanwhile, some of the former Waltham experts with nowhere to go turned their gaze west to Chicago. The suburb where capital and enthusiasm for America’s new watch industry flowed freely was Elgin, some 35 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. Together with a handful of local capitalists the National Watch Company of Chicago was founded. In contrast to its predecessors in Roxboro, Waltham and Nashua, this watch manufacturer would not experience the numbing effects of capital starvation, quite the contrary. Two decades on, money had come to share Dennison’s vision of a bright future for watchmaking in the US.

Since one of the founders at the National Watch Company of Chicago had been appointed official timekeeper for various railroads in Chicago, it was not a stretch for the watchmaker to become involved in railroad timekeeping. The manner in which the company met this responsibility was to become the backbone of its image to this day. An overhauled version of their first pocket watch became the starting point for the legendary railroad watches, and ElginMachines2the company was off to the races. Since their watches became known around the country and abroad as simply “the Elgin watches,” the company name was changed to The Elgin National Watch Company in 1874. New departments were created and demand increased year upon year, frequently exceeding capacity. In the year 1900 alone, Elgin produced one million watches.

It became evident that the American System of Manufacturing had broken out and proven its mettle. At the National Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Waltham won multiple awards for precision in timekeeping. One of its models had a daily deviance of less than 0.23 seconds. None of the European watchmakers present could match that performance and went home feeling defeated.

In the meantime, The United States Watch Company in Marion, NJ had put out a movement it called the “United States,” which was considered the finest in the country at the time. The company was renamed The Marion Watch Company, but it was soon broken up. The “three-wheeled Mozart” movement, named after its developer, D.J. Mozart, also had an excellent reputation among watchmakers. Oddly, stockholders of the Mozart Watch Company in Providence, RI, decided it was a lemon and Mozart was replaced with a former Waltham man. In 1870 the company was moved several times and burnt to the ground. Within three months it was up and running again and eventually become the Hampden Watch Company. Hampden was bought 1888 by its watch case maker, Duebner Watch Case Manufacturing. Both factories were moved together to Canton, OH, where the newly created Duebner Hampton employed nearly 10% of the town’s population.

Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, a.k.a. America’ Switzerland, became home to the Waterbury Clock Company, which made its name at home and abroad for affordable clocks. They were produced in large quantities. It’s sister company, the Waterbury Watch Company was founded in 1878 with the similar objective of targeting low-income earners. In order for the movements to be manufactured at low cost and in large quantities, they had no jewels and no more than 58 parts in all at a time when a US movement averaged around 150 parts. This coined the phrase that “the Waterbury is simplicity itself.”

After a challenging first half of the 19th century, the US watchmaking industry benefitted from the perseverance and tenacity of its pioneers and was off to a booming second half. Waltham and Elgin were the main players, representing a duopoly Elginpocketwatchfobthat did not exist with their Old World competitors. There was also notable difference between the lifespan of American and European watchmaking factories: American factories sometimes went out of business after just a few months, while others did well over the decades. By contrast, European factories were networks of cottage manufacturers and family businesses that measured their lifespan in generations, which could span centuries. Yet the pioneers of American watchmaking thought in terms of factories and towns, not cottages and families, which made them natural participants of the industrial age. In less than forty years, they went from being odd-bird struggling inventors to becoming the largest watch producers in the world.—Robert Ackerman

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