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Ball Watch Co.

Ball: A Thumbnail Description

Webb C. Ball had been involved in the American watch business by the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but it wasn't until the early-1890s that the first of the Ball watch companies appeared. A succession of Ball firms, eventually funded by Rockefeller capital, marketed Railroad Grade Watches (the last being Wrist Watches), and other, non-railroad, watches over a period of about seventy to eighty years.

There have been such a number of Ball companies, under different names, sometimes functioning simultaneously, that (by Ball's design) it is very difficult to follow their evolution. Nevertheless, Jeffrey Hess, CEO of Ball Watch USA, has described a portion of it in a 1-May-09 NAWCC Message Board Post. Also, there was one branch of Ball operations in Winnipeg; the Canadian Ball Watch Company, Ltd. In the general discussion below, the different companies will be collectively referred to as the Ball Watch Co., or simply as Ball. After lying dormant for about twenty years at the end of the twentieth century, the Ball family sold the enterprise to new owners who are producing Ball watches today and marketing them in the U.S. through Ball Watch USA..

The Ball Official RR Standard grade watches were considered a cut above the run-of-the-mill railroad grade watches (all of which were of a relatively high grade) and are considered to be quite collectable, although the Swiss-built Ball watches of the 1950s are only first beginning to be collected as avidly as the U.S.-built ones. Further below is a brief, limited, overview of the most common railroad grade pocket watches Ball offered prior to the introduction of wrist watches in the late 1950s.

Jewelry and Watch Distribution

In addition to and marketing watches, the Ball organization functioned as jobbers distributing jewelry and watches (including railroad grade movements made by the major watch companies). This was a 'natural' business since Ball was already distributing to Ball Watch Co. dealers Additionally, Ball was appointed as Hamilton's Western Agent, giving him a popular line to sell, including his own. This important part of the Ball business expanded considerably by the merger with Norris, Alister & Co. in Chicago, which was renamed The Norris, Alister-Ball Co.. At the beginning of the railroad standard wristwatch era in 1960, it was the jewelry distribution business that became the most viable of the Ball businesses.

The Ball Railroad Time Service

Yet another branch of the Ball businesses was the Ball Railroad Time Service (which operated under a number of different, official sounding names over the years). This business performed time inspection services under contract to the railroads. Contrary to popular belief (that Ball "invented" railroad watch inspection after the 1891 LS&MS Kipton wreck), this business was in operation at the end of the 1880s, along with competitors, such as Giles, Bro. & Co. By 1890 Ball was the Official Watch Inspector for a number of railroads. The actual inspectors were the same jewelers who were the Ball Watch Co. dealers and the same ones to whom Ball was distributing watches and jewelry. The watch inspection business was apparently run successfully, winning contracts away from other railroad inspection contractors like J.W. Forsinger, a descendant of Giles, Bro. & Co. In a 1910 interview, Ball claimed that his inspection services covered about half the railroads in the U.S. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt as other 'facts' Ball cited in the interview are known to be inaccurate. Eventually, these services were performed in Canada as well, as noted in the letterhead of a 1925 document regarding Montgomery dials. of the Ball businesses.

The 1910 Morrow Interview

In late 1909 or very early 1910, Webb C. Ball was interviewed by James B. Morrow. The interview, being syndicated, was published, under different titles, on January 10, 1910 in at least 13 newspapers in major cities across the country. Robert Winslow (in video program No. 530 entitled Webb C. Ball - see References, below) quotes the title as being "The Man Who Holds A Watch On 125,000 Miles Of Railroad" and states that the copy he had described James B. Morrow as being "… one of the foremost newspaper correspondents in the United States and was former editor of the Cleveland Leader." Winslow, in his video program, then goes on to discuss the accuracy of the article at some length.

Morrow's interview appeared on that date in the New York Tribune entitled "Many Lives Sacrificed Because Of Faulty Watches," which can be read, in its entirety, via this link. The significance of this interview is that it is the first known recounting of Webb C. Ball's claim to have founded organized watch inspection in the U.S. at the behest of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway (LS&MS), following a train wreck at Kipton, OH, as related above. The system Ball claimed to have created is described in the two circulars issued by the LS&MS:
The interview makes for interesting reading. Nevertheless, however foremost a newspaper correspondent James B. Morrow may have been, he apparently didn't research the subject very deeply. He tossed a series of what would be today called "softball questions" to Ball and printed the answers. That Ball had such relevant and positive replies at his command demonstrates his vast knowledge of the subject and his ability to capitalize on this opportunity to have a nationwide forum to promote his companies. Unfortunately, we have no knowledge of the circumstances of the interview. It may have been a candid sit-down discussion, or the questions may have been submitted in advance and not all of them chosen to be answered. Ball's responses also sound as though they had been related many times before and, although nothing has come to light to date, an earlier account of subject may turn up someday.

Who Built the Watches?

The Ball Watch Co. never actually made watches. Movements and cases were made under contract to Ball's specifications by various watch manufacturers. However, except for ads in the very early 1890s, Ball advertising and catalogs did not identify who the original manufacturer was, as can be seen in this typical 1910 Ad.

Ball railroad standard watches were made in significant quantities by the following watch companies. Other watch companies (not listed) made smaller amounts

Elgin Watch Co.
Hamilton Watch Co.
Hampden Watch Co.
E. Howard & Co.
Illinois Watch Company
Record Watch Co.

Adjusted by Ball

The final adjusting of almost all Ball watches was done by Ball, not the original manufacturer. Ball started doing this in the early 1890's, but it's not clear if they were still doing it through the depression up to World War II. Under an early name, the Webb C. Ball Co. had watches made by the E. Howard Watch and Clock Co. These N-size (close to 18-size), 17-jewel watches were privately labeled "O.R.C Standard" and "B. of L.E. Standard." Ball literature and Ads of the Mid-1890s noted that the Webb C. Ball Co. did the adjusting. In January 2010, Jerry Treiman reported on the NAWCC Message Board that 1903 correspondence between Waltham and Ball exists stating that Ball "finishes, times, dials and adjusts these movements himself" referring to the Waltham-Ball watches. Later, in 1905, Ball contracted with Elgin for 18-size, open-face and hunting-case, Official RR Standard watches in both 17-jewel (open-face grade No. 333) and 21-jewel (open-face grade No. 334) configurations. Elgin factory records show that these watches left the Elgin factory with only the most basic adjustment. The No. 334 Specification Sheet for the 21-jewel Official RR Standard notes an adjustment number of 30, which allows for +/-30 seconds error in 24 hours. At the time, railroad standard watches (which these were) were only allowed to vary +/-30 seconds in a week. The inescapable conclusion supports the oft-time repeated assertion that Ball finished the watches, to their fineness of adjustment, in their own facility.

Movements were shipped to Canadian Ball Watch Company, Ltd., Winnipeg, who would then case them in-house. Its not clear if these were shipped directly from the original manufacturers, or if they were shipped through Ball in the U.S. Thus, its also not fully clear if watches were adjusted by Canadian Ball, or if they were adjusted by Ball in the U.S. and then shipped to Winnipeg.

Official Standard Watches

Official RR Standard (ORRS) was Ball's trade mark grade name for railroad grade watches (as opposed to those that weren't adjusted highly enough to pass inspection, the commercial grade watches). It should be noted that Ball never used the term "Official RailRoad Standard" or "Official Railroad Standard" to refer to these watches - "Official RR Standard" was the trade marked name and Ball stuck to it. When labeled for one of the Railroad Brotherhoods, the name was Official xxx Standard, where xxx was the initials of the brotherhood. For example, Official ORC Standard (Order of Railway Conductors). The earliest 18-size watches were mostly built by Hampden and Howard (N-size), but by the mid-1890s, they were being built by Hamilton, along with a few thousand built by Elgin in about 1905.

The End of 18-Size Watches

Ball stopped ordering 18-size ORRS watches around 1910 or 1911 and was promoting the trade-in of 18-size watches for 16-size ones by April 15, 1917. A series of ads continuing the promotion of trading-in 18-size watches ran for several years:
May 1917 - the same ad as the April 15, 1917, but different journal
Another May 1917 Ad
November 1917 Ad
January 1918 Ad
February 1918 Ad
April 1918 Ad
October 1918 Ad
November 1918 Ad
February 1919 Ad
March 1919 Ad

Jeffrey Hess, the head of Ball Watch USA, once posted (on the NAWCC Message Board) the pages of a booklet containing Safety Meeting notes of Ball and the Operating Officials and Watch Inspectors of the Union Pacific, June 21-22, 1916. In discussing using the "new" 16-size watches for loaner watches so that the railroaders would get to try them and then accepting 18-size trade-ins, this exchange occurred:

Mr. Ball:
One watch inspector I know has turned out two hundred old watches that way in the last two years, so he told me last week and put sixteen size watches in service by that method."

Mr. Koos:
"What does he do with his eighteen size old watches?"

Mr. Ball:
"He trades them off to pit men and car cleaners and dagoes; people of that class, and then he has an auctioneer that goes around the country. He will frequently send him twenty-five or thirty old eighteen size railroad watches. It is very little trouble getting nine or ten dollars out of those watches, and rarely he has to allow more than ten dollars for them. ..."

Note: The people whom Ball is describing, as customers for the old 18-size watches, do not fall under the time service rules. In this manner, Ball is removing the 18-size watches from time service.

16-Size Watches

16-size Official Standard watches were built by Waltham starting in about 1899. Ball also went to Hamilton for 16-size watches around 1910 and Illinois in the late 1920s. The last of the U.S.-built Ball ORRS pocket watches was the Hamilton-Ball 999B. Except for the plate decoration and markings, it appears to be Identical to the Hamilton 992B.

Swiss-Built ORRS Watches

The last of the Ball Official Standard grade pocket watches were the Swiss-made, Record Watch Co. movements built starting in 1954. These 21-jewel, 16-size watches were the grade/caliber:
435, If you look carefully in the space framed by the center wheel and balance rim (right below the center jewel in the picture), you can see that the number "435" in an oval is stamped on the pillar plate.
435B One change (and a minor one at that) to the No. 435 is that the regulator screw has been moved to the opposite side of the regulator arm.
435C. The Kif shock protection on the pallet and escape arbors has been dropped and only the balance cap jewel still has Kif, or Incabloc, shock protection.

These were the just about the only pocket watches used in North American railroad railroad time service fitted with an Incabloc anti-shock system on the balance staff. The 435C Was Still Being Accepted on the Canadian Pacific Railway (along with a handful of other pocket watches), and elsewhere, in the late 1960s, and in fact, long after that. Their original cases can be recognized by having a single lever slot, at the 56 minute position.

Ball 16-size ORRS Serial Numbers

Tables of Ball serial numbers, listed by manufacturers, can be found in American Railroad Watches, George E. Townsend, Col., see References, below.

The Ball 'B' prefix series of numbers starts in 1896, several years later for 16-size watches with Waltham-Ball watches which run to about 1922. The 'B' prefix serial numbers are truncated Waltham serial numbers (the "millions" digits are chopped off) and do not appear to be in an ascending sequence until about 1903 with serial number B202001. They then follow in ascending, chronological sequence to B271000 in about 1922. However, there are Waltham-Ball 'B' prefix serial numbers from 1896 to about 1903 that appear to be above or below that sequence. A few Waltham-Ball serial numbers overlap some of the Hamilton-Ball serial numbers in the neighborhood of B640001 - B643500.

Larry Treiman provided a good description of Waltham-Ball seial number assignment in a NAWCC American Pocket Watch Message Board post on 20-Sep-10:
From the very first watches that Waltham made for Ball, they took the regular Waltham serial number, then took off the millions and ten-millions place digits and substituted a "B" prefix. Thus 9060701 presumably should become Ball s.n. B060701. That is what usually happened....but not always. In some instances in Waltham Balls with Waltham serial numbers in the 10 millions, they apparently dropped only the 1 in the 10 millions place but not the 0 in the millions place, leaving the B followed by 7 digits beginning with 0, like B0XXXXXX. This went on for several years resulting in serial number runs that are all over the place, IOW, a real hodge-podge!

FINALLY when they got up to the Waltham serial numbers in the 13 millions, someone came up with the brilliant idea of allocating large blocks of serial numbers in advance for Ball watches. Thus starting with Waltham ser. no. 13202001 and running to 13225000, that entire block of serial numbers was set aside for Ball watches. The 13 was dropped and replaced by the B prefix, resulting in Ball serial numbers B202001 thru B225000. By the time they had used up all those serial numbers, Waltham production must have been approaching the 15 millions, so to keep things continuous, they set aside Waltham ser. nos. 15225001 thru 15240000, which became Ball numbers B225001 thru B240000. Those ran out when Waltham production was up around the 18 millions, so a new block of Waltham numbers, 18240001 thru 18255500 (according to the "Gray Book") was set aside for Ball numbers B240001 thru B255500.

The process continued through the rest of Waltham's production for Ball. In the 20 millions they set aside 20255001 th....oops....there's a little glitch there! Either the last s.n. in the 18 millions should have been 18255000 or the first in the 20 millions should have been 20255501. That is typical of the "glitches" (i.e., errors) that turn up in the "Gray Book". ... You can wake up now! The worst is over.

Anyway, you can see that about the best we can say (or I can say), is that a Waltham watch in the 13 millions serial number block allocated to Ball Production would have been made c.1904. But that many watches were likely produced over a longer period of time, and the next group of numbers to be set aside in the 15 millions would have been made around 1907 and later, the best guess would be just that, a guess. Also, keep in mind that when Waltham was finished with their part of the process, the movements were not yet adjusted or cased. They were shipped to Ball's Cleveland, Ohio, facility where each watch was torn down, checked over, reassembled and then adjusted to Ball's standards by Ball's own staff of skilled watchmakers, before being cased (and dialed, I think) and shipped out. And I'm not aware of the existence of any records showing when the watches were shipped out from the Ball facility.
In other words, large blocks of Waltham serial numbers were allocated at various times for Ball watch production so as to keep Ball's truncated, 'B' prefix serial numbers in apparent sequence. Thus, the watches themselves were not necessarily built in chronological order with the rest of Waltham production. Additionally, currently available date references for Waltham serial numbers, within the era during which watches were supplied to Ball, are in error by as much as three or more years. Therefore, dating Waltham-Ball watches by serial number can be in error as much as five years or more.

'B' prefix 16-size Hamilton-Ball serial numbers start in 1910 with serial number B600001 and end at B655200 in about 1943 when the 999B came out. Up to that point, all 16-size Hamilton-Ball ORRS watches were listed in Hamilton records as grade 999. The 999B starts their own, new series of serial numbers having a '1B' prefix. These start with 1B001 in about 1943, got to 1B10400 by April 1949 and run up to about 1B27600 in the 1950s. A sample of serial numbers and dates, starting with serial number 1B451, can be seen in an Excerpt from Hamilton Production Ledger #376.

An exception is 700 999Bs made in 1943-1944, having a '2B' prefix: 2B001 - 2B700, an example of which is seen in a Comparison of 992B with a 999B. It has been said that these were intended to be 23-jewel movements and that although production was started with the plates numbered in the 2B001 - 2B700 range, they were completed as 21-jewel movements. If this was indeed the case, the reason for the change may have been that the War Production Board (WPB) halted the manufacture of 23-jewel watches by March 1943, as seen in a March 1943 Hamilton letter to its wholesalers.

Serial numbers of the Record-Ball watches are estimated, based upon information in the data base maintained by E. Ueberall and K. Singer:

435 : - - - 0 - - 500
435B: - -501 - 4,115
435C: 4,116 - 7,600

Ball 12-Size Watches

Illinois-built grade No. 417, 12-size, Ball watches are discussed in this 2011 Message Board thread, started by Jim Carroll.

Ball Cases

All Ball Official RR Standard (ORRS) watches built in, and sold in, the U.S. after 1905 (and a number of them built prior to that date) were furnished in signed, Ball Model Cases up until the mid-1950’s. After that, Ball seems to have sold some of the Record-Ball ORRS watches in unsigned cases. Although unsigned, the cases were ordered with setting lever slots only at the 56 minute position - specific to the Record-Ball movements (as opposed to the generic cases of the day which had setting lever slots at both the 6 and the 56 minute positions). For an unknown period of time, Ball ORRS Watches Sold Canada could be had in either Canadian-made cases, or as movements only, to be fitted to be fitted into the customer's choice of case at the time of retail sale.

Although not all Ball Model cases had them, those bearing the Ball "Stirrup" Safety Bow are very recognizable. These cases seem to have first started appearing in ads in 1913 but the patent for the first design of the stirrup safety bow was granted in May, 1910 (posted by Robert Sweet). Until the mid-1920s, the older, antique-bow, style coexisted with the newly patented bow, but by 1925 only the stirrup safety bow continued to be used. Variations of this distinctive design were used until the end of the Ball Official Standard pocket watch sales in the late 1950s or early 1960s. From the mid-1950s, non-Ball-signed cases were introduced that had a plain bow (see below).

In 1925 Ball introduced a New Case Style and the "Box Car" Dial, a dial having bold minute and hour marks and plain, san-serif Arabic number figures. Another example can be seen in a May 1926 Ball Ad. In the Fall of 1928, a more Modern-Looking Ball Case came into use, in which the pendant has almost disappeared (only two stubs stick up to hold the bow) and the crown practically sits on the rim of the case. This style proved popular and, with only minor variations, it continued for the next thirty years.

The later cases for Hamilton-Ball Official RR Standard movements were marked Official RR Standard, as seen in the case of 999B Serial Number 2B398.

It seems that a portion of the Swiss-built Record-Ball watches were in unsigned cases. Although not signed "Ball Model" or "ORRS", these cases can be recognized by having a Single Lever Slot at the 56 Minute Position. The similar looking, common replacement cases all had a second lever slot at the 6 minute position to accommodate the majority of 16-size lever-set movements. Some of those cases built for Ball are similar to some built for Waltham which also had a single lever slot at the 56 minute position. The Waltham cases may be signed "Waltham" or not, but will they will have screw marks to match a Waltham model 1908's case screws.

Single-Sunk Dials

Ball was a firm believer in single-sunk (sunk-seconds) dials, furnishing double-sunk in only a few instances. The reason given in advertising was that "Single Sunk Dials are plainer to read and do not crack."


More about Webb C. Ball and his companies can be seen at:


The Ohio Biographies Project . However, this story has a grossly inaccurate account of the 1891 Kipton Wreck (also see "1891 Disaster, Kipton, Oh, Revisited," below, which contains the government inspector's full report on the wreck). The story also fails to recognize that there was railroad time service and watch inspection since the late 1840’s and early 1850’s.

Early Ball information is available on the Los Padres Chapter 52 Website thanks to Bill Kapp.

RRSTD's Hamilton Ball Serial Numbers & Grade Descriptions

Hamilton-Ball Serial Number vs. Date data is available to NAWCC members who are currently logged on to the NAWCC website.

Elgin-Ball Serial Number Data is available on Wayne Schlitt's website.

Also, there are Ball and Ball-Related Threads on the NAWCC Message Board (scroll down).

The books listed below, along with back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin, are available on loan by mail to members from the NAWCC Lending Library. Use the Lending Library Form.

1902 Ball Co. Catalog, Cleveland, OH, 1902, reprinted in American Pocket Watch 1977 Price Indicator, Identification and Price Guide, Roy Ehrhardt, Heart of America Press, Kansas City, MO, 1978, pp. 59-64.

American Railroad Watches, George E. Townsend, Col. G.E. Townsend, Alma, MI, 1977

NAWCC Bulletin Articles
Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in. The back issues are also available to members on loan by mail from the NAWCC Lending Library. There is an Online Bulletin Index that can be used to locate additional material on Webb C. Ball and his companies.

"The Babcocks - Mary and Harrison - and Webb C. Ball," William E. Miether, NAWCC Bulletin No. 112, October 1964, pp. 439-446.
"Ball & Company and the Vanderbilt Railroads," Thomas L. De Fazio, NAWCC Bulletin No. 184, October 1976, pp. 410-418.
"The Kipton Disaster and Webb C. Ball," Robert P. Winslow, NAWCC Bulletin No. 278, June 1992, pp. 259-266.
"The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Company’s 1891 Disaster at Kipton, Ohio—Revisited," William M. Hoffer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 346, October 2003, pp. 563-572.
"Mr. Whitcomb and Mr. Ball," T. William Schroeder, NAWCC Bulletin No. 199, April 1979, pp. 179-181.
"Private Label Movements and Dials for W.C. Ball by E. Howard & Co.," Harold Visser and Clint Geller, NAWCC Bulletin No. 351, August 2004, pp. 494-499.
"Railroaders' Corner - The Ball Watch Story - Part 1: Railroad Standard Watches - The Early Years," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 338, June 2002, pp. 349-356.
"Railroaders' Corner - The Ball Watch Story - Part 2: Railroad Standard Watches - "Watches of the Twentieth Century," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 339, August 2002, pp. 479-490.
"Railroaders' Corner - The Ball Watch Story - Part 3: Railroad Standard Watches - The Private Label and Brotherhood Watches," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 340, October 2002, pp. 619-627.
"Railroaders' Corner - The Ball Watch Story - Part 4: Railroad Standard Watches - Ball Signed Cases," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 341, December 2002, pp. 773-782.
"Railroaders' Corner - Wind Indicators, Part 3: Ball & Rockford," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 373, April, 2008, pp. 181-188.
"Railroaders' Corner - A Pair of Swiss Ball Watches," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 304, October, 1996, pp 664-665.
"Ten Years In A Drawer," Doug Sinclair, NAWCC Bulletin No. 373, August 1994, pp. 468-469.
"Webb C. Ball Miscellanea," Leonard M. Campbell and Eugene T. Fuller, NAWCC Bulletin No. 234, February 1985, pp. 15-24.
"Webb C. Ball Railroad Watch Inspection System," Robert P. Winslow, NAWCC Bulletin No. 310, October 1997, pp. 539-553.
'Webb C. Ball vs. Henry S. Montgomery "... a species of delirium",' Larry Treiman, NAWCC Bulletin No. 180, February 1976, pp. 47-55.
"23-Jewel Ball-Hamilton Watch with DeLong Escapement," Galen M. Gudenkauf with Walter Pennick, NAWCC Bulletin No. 332, June 2001, pages 292-294.

Ball brotherhood trade mark patent announcements, patent numbers and filing dates appear in the NAWCC Bulletin No. 324, February 2000, pages 101-102.

Other Articles

"Annual Meeting of the National Safety Council - Safety and Time Service," Railway Age, Simmons-Boardman, October 8, 1920, pg. 617. Report of a paper delivered by Webb C. Ball.

"Many Lives Sacrificed Because of Faulty Watches," James B. Morrow, New York Tribune, January 10, 1910.

Video Programs
There are a few interesting video programs on Webb C. Ball and his companies. These may be available online, to members who are logged in, from the NAWCC Digital Video Archive.

530. WEBB C. BALL, by Robert Winslow, Joel Savich & Chuck Gallagher (76)
This program is an in depth look at the personality & business acumen of Webb C. Ball, his influence on standard & railroad watches, & many of the clocks sold by Ball.

†631. THE BALL COMPANY, by James L. Hernick (18)
This is an excellent program of the watches & clocks that were made for the Ball Co., established 1865, to meet railroad specifications. The very fine photography, in excellent detail, shows on the movements & dials Ball’s famous trademark “Official RR Standard.” Also shown on the movements & dials are abbreviations of “Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers,” “Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen,” “Order of Railway Conductors,” & others. Ball’s watches & clocks were made for him by the finest watch & clock makers of the period. Good slides. Recommended for group and individual use.

634. WEBB C. BALL & RAILROAD TIMEKEEPING, by Robert Winslow (70)
In this program, recorded at the 17th NAWCC Seminar, Bob gives a detailed accounting of the life & business career of Webb C. Ball. Bob discusses in detail how Webb C. Ball established his jewelry business & how the business evolved into the largest & most influential company in the railroad watch business.

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