Railroad Watch

Many people have come to call any large old pocket watch, especially one with an engraving of a locomotive on the back of the case, a railroad watch. This usage is frequently is incorrect. The term "Railroad Watch" was used by the watch and jewelry trade (and is now used by collectors) to refer those high grade watches that met the requirements of Railroad Time Service rules and standards. The railroad industry, and the railroaders themselves, referred to the watches as "Standard Watches," literally, those watches that met the railroads' time service standards.

What Is A Standard Watch?

The easy answer to the question What Is A Standard Watch? is that standard watches are those watches that were accepted for railroad time service. The problems in using this definition becomes evident when the following facts are contemplated. First, different railroads accepted different watches. Then, while some railroads listed specific makes and grades as acceptable, others just listed requirements.

Besides, not all the lists and other such documents survived for our examination. Another complication is that, whether or not specific watches were listed, the requirements differed from decade to decade. The waters get muddied further by the fact that the requirements for "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. All things considered, the definition of a railroad watch evolves to a more meaningful form,

"A standard watch is one that met the general time service requirements that were in effect at the time that it was built."

Who Defined What Was Accepted As A Standard Watch?

The watches accepted as standard watches on a railroad were defined by the Time Service department of that railroad. And, it is important to note that the criteria differed from railroad to railroad and evolved as time progressed. An example of this is that while watches marketed by the Santa Fe Watch Co. and the Burlington Watch Co. were accepted on a number of railroads (Railroad Watches Identification and Price Guide,, Ehrhardt & Meggers, see References, below), they were not accepted on others.

Whether the time inspection services were performed in-house, or contracted out, the head of the service, the General Watch Inspector, Chief Inspector of Watches, Superintendent of Time Service, General Time Inspector, or some similarly titled official, was responsible for setting the standard. If the time service functions were contracted out to a firm that had contracts for time inspection services on other railroads - as almost all of them did - the rules (and the watches defined in the rules) might be very similar, but they still differed as might be desired by the individual railroads. One example is that the Ball Time Service - which Webb C. Ball (its founder) claimed at the time in question, controlled half of the railway track miles in the U.S. - prohibited the use of Montgomery dials on all of the railroads whose time service it supervised. That is, except for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific (the Rock Island Line). It seems that, initially, Montgomery dials were prohibited there as well, but the CRI&P management instructed the Ball Time Service to accept the dials.

How Were The Accepted Standard Watches Defined?

Usually, the requirements for a standard watch were expressed in one of two ways.

Of Equal or Higher Grade Than Those Listed
The first, and apparently most common, way was to declare that watches be of equal or higher grade than those listed, and this statement was then followed by a list of different makes and grades. To be specific, a watch did not have to be one of the grades listed to be accepted, but it needed to be recognized as being equal to, or of a higher grade than, those that were listed. In later years, an alternate phrase to "... of equal or higher grade than ..." appeared: "The following schedule will govern the standard for NEW WATCHES:" (Section 4 of the 1915 NYC Rules page 1 and page 2). Still later, the phrase "The minimum standard for watches going into service ..." was used (Section 3a of the 1949 Burlington Route rules).

The concept of equal or greater grade to listed watches was still being applied to pocket watches in the late 1970s. At that time, Peter Kushnir, a CP Rail time service official wrote a memo naming watches in service that "... never appeared on a list of CP Rail approved watches ..."

Meets the Listed Requirements
The second way in which the watch requirements were expressed were as a list of attributes and features which the watch had to have. In the late 1800s, this was somewhat basic (such as those described in the 1892 IC requirements), but by the 1920s, this could be extensive, as seen in these CPR 1922 watch specifications. Notice that the name of the maker and the name or number of the grade had to be stamped on the movement - precluding the acceptance of private label watches. For the novice to understand some of these criteria, it might be useful to read the essays on:

Watch Models
Watch Grades
Watch Adjustment
Pocket Watch Regulator
Pocket Watch Jewels
Watch Size

Is There A List of All Standard Watches?

Such a list would fill a book. In fact, it fills several books (listed in the references below). But, caution is needed as the books have some errors and omissions. There are a large number of watches that are widely recognized as indisputably being standard watches and there are a much larger number that are widely recognized as not being suited. In-between, there are a group about which it is hazy whether or not they are standard watches. Some have seemed to have met the standards, but no documentation has been seen to justify (or even indicate) that they have been accepted and some seem to not have met the standards and are documented as having been accepted. One has to realize that, even if there is no indication in the documentation that a watch is a standard watch, individual inspectors may have accepted the watch for time service use. The best that can be done is to read the documentation, learn the standards, listen to input from others who may know more, and form an opinion, recognizing that it may be incorrect.

15-Jewel Standard Watches In the 1890s

Here are reports of some of the railroads' requirements as the 1890's began.

"Erie, Pa., Sept. 22. - A.H. Murphy, the jeweler, has been appointed inspector for Erie Railroad of the watches to be carried by all engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and yardmasters employed by the Lake Shore road. Each employe must own and carry a watch with not less than fifteen jewels, patent regulator, adjusted to heat and cold, and subject to inspection at least once in two weeks by Mr. Murphy.

"The first inspection took place Sept. 20th and the men were allowed until Nov. 1st to get watches up to the standard.

Reported in The Jewelers’ Circular - Weekly And Horological Review, September 23, 1891
In 1892 the Illinois Central Railroad had similar requirements.

Ball's 1891 rules for the NYC's Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway show, in Section 1, that 15-jewel, adjusted, watches fitted with a patent regulator, could remain in service (be grandfathered) and some of the watches mentioned in Section 2 as new watches allowed to enter service were 15-jewel.

However, even though these watches, pendant-set or not, would be grandfathered forward for decades, the acceptance of 15-jewel watches for entering service declined as the 1890's progressed, as reported about the Pittsburgh & Western (which caused some dissatisfaction amongst railroaders who had to go out and buy new, expensive watches) and the Mobil & Ohio. The watches themselves were suitable, as evidenced by their being grandfathered on some railroads. The problem was that that the watch companies stopped making high grade 15-jewel watches by mid-decade. Hampden’s marketing blitz of a full line of 17-jewel, mass-produced standard watches had upset the market and all of the manufacturers were forced to up-jewel their existing products, and design new 17-jewel, and higher jeweled, watches in order to compete. Even so, by the end of the decade, the 17-jewel standard watch began falling into disfavor as 21-jewel standard watches became the idealized (but not required) railroad watch.

Hunting-Case Watches Were Accepted

That hunting-case watches were accepted for entering into railroad time service during the first quarter of the twentieth century is one of the least-known facts about railroad watches. There were two obvious ways in which the hunting movements could be cased, in hunting cases (as intended by the manufacturers) or in open-face cases.

In 1920, Webb C. Ball (the titular head of the Ball Railroad Time Service - which by this time was run by his son Sidney, when addressing the 9th Annual Congress of the National Safety Council, Steam Railroad Section, said:

"The use of such closed-face models that have been converted into open face watches without changing the position of the stem has proved disastrous to life and property as a result of false reading of the time indicated. A serious error of 15 minutes can easily result from a confused reading of a side-wheeler watch dial …

Addressing this issue, essentially requiring the use of a conversion dial to have the winding stem appear at the 12 o'clock position, the typical statement in the various rules is best exemplified by what the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q - The Burlington Route) published on the subject on April 1, 1949

3a. (in part) All watches going into service must be adjusted to 5 positions and so stamped on plates, also must be lever set, have Arabic standard or marginal minute dials, and if in open-faced cases wind at the figure 12.

Neither Ball, nor the CB&Q (or other roads) specifically prohibited hunting-case watches until the 1920s, or much later on some roads. Except for those hunting-case movements mounted in open-face cases with conversion dials (as alluded to above), hunting-case watches aren't mentioned in 1908 - 1920s (or later on some roads) rules documents. When mentioned prior to that, it was to specifically note their acceptance. One such example is in section 10 of the Big Four - The Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Co. and Peoria & Eastern Railway Co., Time Inspection Service Circular, Indianapolis, Dec. 15, 1897. The subject of hunting movements in open-face cases is discussed in section 11. However, hunting-case watches were effectively precluded from entering service in the post-WWII era on a number of railroads, those requiring minimum serial numbers. Conversion dial or not, hunting-case railroad grade watches just weren't made late enough to bear serial numbers that met those requirements.

Public taste in watches had changed away from hunting-case by the 'teens, so much so that by the 1920s they were no longer being made in grades suitable for railroad service. Nevertheless, there is evidence that hunting-case watches continued to be grandfathered forward on some railroads beyond WWII. Dan Anderson wrote several letters touching on the subject in the summer of 1997. He described working in his uncle's watch shop in 1952-8. The shop was located across from a depot that served the UP, SP, WP and about five short lines. Dan recalled seeing hunting case watches still in service at that time. His memory is supported by surviving watch certificates that have provisions for describing hunting-case watches such as a 1950 example from the Frisco Lines and a 1956 watch inspection order form and attached certificate from the Western Maryland Railway.

Pendant-Set Watches Were Accepted

Many novice and intermediate level collectors believe that railroad watches had to be lever-set and that a pendant-set watch would not be accepted into railroad time service (those unfamiliar with the terms "lever-set" and "pendant-set" may wish to refer to the Encyclopedia article entitled "Setting Watch Hands"). However, like many of the requirements, the one requiring lever-setting evolved over time. Up through the 1890s, it made little difference (rule-wise) which way a railroad standard watch was set. Up to about the turn of the century, many open-face watches were pendant-set and many hunting movements were lever-set. An example is Waltham's model 1892, a watch designed specifically for railroad service. These setting means were described right up at the top of the 1894 introductory ad.

By 1900, there was a shift toward lever-setting for all watches used in railroad service, based upon the impossibility of a lever-set watch being inadvertently mis-set, as touted in a 1900 Dueber-Hampden ad. This was more strongly promoted, using what might be called "scare tactics," in a 1901 Dueber-Hampden ad. Nevertheless, it still took years for before lever-setting became required. For example, section 4.A of a 1906 set of rules for division of the Pennsylvania Rail Road lists the Hamilton 16-size grade No. 970, a movement that was only built as a pendant-set watch, as being accepted for use, although section 7 states that, "Lever set watches are considered safer and are recommended for railroad service." However, being recommended is not the same thing as being required. Just the same, only a couple of years later, rules started appearing, such as at the bottom of section 4 of the 1908 Rock Island rules, stating, "All new watches must be lever set ..." After that, the acceptance of pendant-set watches fell off sharply.

Where to Find Out Which Watches Were Accepted

Sometimes, copies of the actual rules, or contemporary trade journal articles quoting from the rules, are available for analysis, such as those listed in the online references, below. Other times, we have to rely on watch company advertising (taken with a grain of salt), such as this purported account of the 1889 L&N watch requirements. In an 1896 ad, Dueber-Hampden published a testimonial letter showing a list of its watch grades that were accepted by the NYC&HRR Inspectors.

Watch company, jobber and retailer catalogs and ads are a source of lists of watches that are claimed (frequently, guaranteed) to be accepted for railroad service. Two problems with this are that these are published by the people selling the watches, not those who are certifying them for entering service, and not all railroads accepted the same watches. Nevertheless, the ads and catalogs are a fairly good guide as almost all of the firms are responsible, ethical companies. An example of such a catalog listing is page 145 of the 1901-1902 Eaton Catalogue No. 47 which showed, with an 'R' prefix in its catalog numbers, the Waltham railroad standard grades that it carried. The second page of the Dueber-Hampden section of the 1917 Oskamp-Nolting Co. Catalog (a jobber's catalog) denotes that that the top row of three Dueber-Hampden 18-size movements (23-jewel, New Railway; 21-jewel, Special Railway; and 21-jewel, John Hancock grades) "...are Railroad Grades" (curiously, on the next row, the 18-size, lever-set, 21-jewel, Dueber Watch Co. grade movement, adjusted to temperature, isochronism and five positions is not so listed). The third page of the same catalog section shows four 16-size Dueber-Hampden movements noted as being "Railroad Grades." A 1915 P.W. Ellis & Co. catalog shows railroad watches offered by Omega and a 1938-1939 Montgomery Ward Catalog page shows Elgin and Waltham standard watches. There are numerous others for researchers and collectors to seek out. Here's an 1902 ad that Robert Sweet found not too long ago showing the "... watches ... adopted as standard by the Southern Ry." The statement in the lower right-hand corner of the ad, "We Are Not in the Trust." refers to the Watch Trust.

Were Private Label Watches Ever Accepted?

A Private Label Watch is one that was contracted to have markings, and/or adjustments or features, other than those on the cataloged factory watch grades - something special for a particular customer. Private label watches were accepted, a few for quite a long time on some railroads. Private labeling goes back almost to the earliest American watch production and was quite prevalent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, the Pennsylvania Rail Road ordered both Appleton, Tracy & Co. and National Watch Co. B.W. Raymond watches furnished with the railroad's name on the dials. In the perhaps unusual instance of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, it appears that the railroad had the watches built, or maybe the Chief Inspector did, for sale to its employes. Nevertheless, it was more common for contract watches to be ordered by retailers.

Typical of these, Chicago retailer Jos. P. Wathier & Co. marketed Wathier's Railway Watch, a contract watch built by the Illinois Watch Co. Being "Adjusted to Heat, Cold, Isochronism and Six Positions ... Warranted to Pass the most Critical Examination of Expert Railroad Inspectors," it was probably accepted on a number of railroads in and around Chicago. It is interesting to note that the serial number of the movement in the ad (S/N 1,051,479 - which has survived) is shown as an Illinois grade No. 65-S (generally recognized as being a special version of the grade No. 65), a grade not documented by Illinois as being adjusted to six positions. So either the ad misstated the level of adjustment, or Illinois adjusted it to a higher level than its normal No. 65 grade, or the adjustment was performed after it left the Illinois factory (and who knows how closely adjusted it was). Therein lay the downfall of the private label watches. Lacking a recognized, factory grade marking, it couldn't be stated with certainty that it was of equal or higher grade than the watches listed in the standard. Thus, by WWI the private labeled standard watches were pretty much done as in no longer being permitted to enter service, although surely a number were grandfathered forward.

The big exceptions to this were those watches marketed by the Santa Fe Watch Co., the Burlington Watch Co. (no relationship of either to the railroads) and the Ball Watch Co. Regarding Santa Fe and Burlington, their watches were accepted on a number of railroads (Railroad Watches Identification and Price Guide,, Ehrhardt & Meggers, see References, below), but were not accepted on others. Ball is a special case. The movements were plainly marked with a grade name (Official Standard). From the 1890s to the 1930s, Ball watches were adjusted on the Ball premises, and the quality of the adjustment were not questioned by the watch inspection authorities. Of course, on many railroads, Ball WAS the inspection authority - but Ball watches were accepted elsewhere as well.

A Plain White Dial With Arabic Numerals

It is generally believed that railroad watches had to have plain, Arabic dial. This is true, but only only after the first decade or two of the twentieth century. Until the mid-teens, when Arabic dial requirements first started appearing (as seen in these July 1, 1915 B&O rules), dials usually weren't mentioned.

Roman Dials Were Accepted

Watches bearing Roman dials were accepted into service for a number of years following the turn of the century, their prohibition probably coming at different times on different railroads. On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, they were still being accepted in 1906:
Rule 4 - “Fancy” dials or those other than regular factory product, vis.: plain Arabic or Roman figures or the Company's standard dial are prohibited.

Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, Rules Governing Time Service, Revised September 1, 1906
By the mid-teens some railroads' rules, such as the New York Central's April 1, 1915 rules (see the bottom of section 4), were requiring "... plain Arabic standard dials ..." Other roads still had no mention of dial style in the early 1920s; the December 1, 1921 Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul rules serves as an example of this lack. It is not clear for those railroads requiring Arabic dials if, upon that requirement for watches newly entering service, those watches continuing in service that had Roman dials had to have their dials changed. This may well have been the case, but documentation has yet to come to light that indicates one way or the other.

Second Time Zone Hands

The use of a second time zone hand, also known as an extra hour hand, or double hour hands, depended upon the railroad and probably the era. These dual hour hands, one painted black and the other red, were intended to assist railroaders in keeping track of the hour when that persons' duties took them into an adjoining time zone. Their very nature indicates that their use was somewhat limited insofar as the number of railroad employes whose work regularly brought them across time zones was relatively small.

It is doubtful that watches left the factories with second time zone hand installed as a standard product. Unlike the Montgomery Safety Numerical Dial, which catalogs and ads stated could be furnished ... when desired, no mention is made of dual hour hands except in the material catalogs. They were probably only supplied on new watches as a special order, if at all, by those watch inspectors for the railroads which permitted/required the use of a second time zone hand. It is more likely that these hands were stocked by those inspectors whose clients needed them and mounted at the time of sale. Unfortunately, information that indicates one or the other may never surface. Of course, as parts intended for field fitting, second time zone hands could have been mounted on any 16 or 18-size watch, at any time, by just about anybody.

Plastic Crystals

Plastic crystals go back at least as far as 1916 as detailed in this October 2008 post by Ed Ueberall. Unbreakable (plastic) crystals were prohibited on watches used in railroad time service up to and following WWII (see section 43), and plastic crystals were still prohibited well into the 1950s (see section 4). This was because they deteriorated and discolored, releasing gases that corroded the hands and, if they were left in place, damaged other steel parts of the watch. Thus, railroad standard pocket watches were not provided with plastic crystals when originally cased. Crystal replacement is very important for those crystals which have turned yellow or green with age. Even those just starting to turn can cause damage.

Standard Watches Bought On Time

Standard watches, perhaps more than most other products, were heavily promoted by mail-order companies. During the period 1895-1925 there was seemingly no end of offers of watches, guaranteed to pass inspection, for a (relatively) small amount down and a similar small amount per month until the balance was paid off. Many brands and grades were offered, but Illinois' 16-size, 21-jewel Bunn Special, a very popular watch, in a 20-year, gold-filled case, is seen in the following examples. One company after another offered virtually the same watch at the same price and at nearly the same terms.

But selling a standard watch on time wasn't just the domain of the mail-order retailers. The railroads, and their inspection services (whose inspectors were jewelers in competition with the mail-order dealers), recognized that a standard watch (the use of which was mandated) could cost a railroader several weeks wages. To enable their employes to be able to obtain a standard watch, the railroads and their inspection services ensured that buying on time (via payroll deductions) was embedded in their time service rules. One such example is an AT&SF Inspector's Authorization Certificate, whose last sentence tells it all. Another example is reported in this April 20, 1898 account of watch inspection on the Grand Trunk Railway. Railroaders working in, or around, Kansas City could also buy their watches on time from the inspectors, as noted at the bottom of page 45 in these 1899 rules. These are just typical examples. The practice was widespread.

The practice of buying on time continued through the 'teens, twenties and thirties. Even when the government restricted the sale of standard watches during World War II to those railroaders having a "Certificate of Need" (see the "Railroad Standard Watches in World War II" section, below), the rules were re-affirmed for the watches to be purchased on time. In the post-war era, provisions were still embedded in the time service rules, such as this example:

9. Reliable railroad grade watches, guaranteed to give required performance, may be purchased by employes from authorized watch inspectors. Payroll deductions to protect such purchases, will be made if mutually agreeable between watch inspector and employe. Payroll deductions will not be extended to exceed eight months.

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad
(CB&Q - The Burlington Route) Rules Governing Watch Inspection Service of This Company, April 1, 1949

Railroad Standard Watches in World War II

For information of the use and availability of railroad standard watches during World War II, see the Encyclopedia article entitled "The Standard Watch in World War II."

Collecting Railroad (Standard) Watches

For some thoughts on collecting these watches, see the Encyclopedia article: Collecting Railroad Standard Watches.

More Information

To learn more about railroad standard watches, see Just What Is A Railroad Watch? on the Pocket Horology, NAWCC Chapter 174 Website (scroll down to the title of the article). However, please keep in mind that information that became available since the above was written indicates that hunting-case watches were not specifically prohibited from railroad time service, at least, not as early as 1906-1908.



See Encyclopedia article entitled "Railroad Time Service Watch Rules"


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

100 Plus Years of Railroad Watches and Railroad Watch Standards in North America, Greg Frauenhoff, Sedalia, CO.

The Railroad Time Service, The Impact of Railroads on Timekeeping in America, by Sherry Kitts, Edited by Glen Kitts, Published by Sherry Kitts, TN, 2018.

Railroad Watch Inspectors, Greg Frauenhoff, Sedalia, CO, 2000.

Railroad Watches Identification and Price Guide, Roy Ehrhardt & William Meggers, Jr., Heart of America Press, Kansas City, MO, 1995.

Santa Fe: How It Governed Its Timepieces Throughout the System, David M. Nicholson, Dougherty Press, Enid OK, 1985.


Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in.

"Railroad Watches and Time Service," Larry Treiman, NAWCC Bulletin No. 160, October 1972, pp. 651-675.

"Railroad Timekeepers," Ian R. Bartky, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 262, October, 1989, pp. 399-411.

"The Adoption of Standard Time," Ian R. Bartky, Technology And Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1, January 1989, pp. 27-8.

"Running on Time," Ian R. Bartky, Railroad History No. 159, Autumn, 1988, pp. 23-4.

"Railroad Watch Inspection and Adams' System of Time Records," The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review, July 28, 1897, Page 33 and Page 34.

"Railroaders' Corner - Standard Watches During World War II," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 311, December 1997, pp. 740-749.

"Railroaders' Corner - Railroad Time Service," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 334, October 2001, pp. 630-649.

"Railroaders' Corner - So What Is A Railroad Watch?," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 335, December 2001, pp. 810-819.

"Railroad Pocket Watches in Canada,” Fred Angus, Canadian Rail, No. 343, August, 1980, pp.228-48.

"What is a Railroad Watch? A Case Study of Watches and Watch Inspection on the Burlington Route During 1889 and 1890," Greg Frauenhoff, NAWCC Bulletin, No. 298, October 1995, pp. 590-4.

"Ask The Conductor; He Has The Right Time," S.A. Pope, Southern Pacific Bulletin, Vol. XII, No. 8 (August 1923), Pp. 3-7. Scroll down 3/4 of the way to get to August 1923. Although this article ignores 40+ years of watch inspection development prior to Ball's 1891 rules for the LS&MS, it does contain the SP's 1923 watch requirements.

This page has been seen 34,238 times.

    • Created by on
      Last updated by on
Know Your NAWCC Forums Rules!

Find member

Recent Activity

Icon Legend

  • Normal page
  • Color code

    • Content has new updates
    • Content has no updates

Share This Page

Readability Information

An automated review of this page attempts to determine its readability in English (US). The page contains roughly 144 words across 7 sentences.
Readability score
Readability score: 37.90
Grade level
For the information in this page to be accessible to the widest audience of readers, both a high readability score and a low grade level are ideal.

Staff online

Forum statistics

Latest member
Encyclopedia Pages
Total wiki contributions
Last edit
Watch Inspectors by Kent