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Watch Adjustment

Watch adjustment is the process of correcting those errors in the watch that cause variation in time keeping. These include temperature influences, variation in driving power and position of the watch with respect to mechanism such as pendant up or dial up.


Unadjusted movements are those for which no effort has been made to adjust the watch to temperature or position. Or, no provision has been made to allow for these adjustments. Whatever variation in the timekeeping rate results from a change in temperature, or the position in which the watch is carried, exists as a result of the way that the particular watch was built. This has to be accepted as the best that watch the can do. Fortunately, just about all of the mass-produced, jeweled, American, unadjusted watches could keep time within a few minutes a day.

A lack of the marking "Adjusted" is significant. Although the term is vague and may mean anything from adjustment only to temperature, to adjustment to temperature, isochronism and six positions, and although some companies avoided higher duties on imported movements by not marking a movement "Adjusted," the lack of the marking generally indicates a lower grade movement.


Movements that are marked to be "Adjusted" may have a variety, or combination, of features. One has to read the catalog description for any given movement grade to discover just what level of adjustment is being claimed. High grade watches built after 1905-1908 may be marked with specific adjustments. This is especially true for watches intended for use in railroad time service. The balance (wheel), the wheel that spins back and forth rapidly is the device that sets the timekeeping rate of the watch. The purpose of all of the features for an adjusted watch is to keep the balance (wheel), as nearly as possible, oscillating at a consistent rate. The consistency of the rate of oscillation of the balance (wheel) thus determines the timekeeping quality of the watch.

Temperature Compensated Balance (wheel)

A balance (wheel) that is temperature compensated (also known as an expansion balance) has the rim made of two dissimilar metals. There are usually two arms (spokes) from the hub supporting the rim and there is a slot cut in the rim just past each arm. This forms two rim segments having one end supported by the arm and the far end free to move. These slots, and the two colors of metal in the rim, are identifying characteristics. As the temperature increases, lessening the power of the hairspring - the spring coiled inside of the balance (wheel) - the far ends of the rim segments deflect inward. As temperature decreases, the segment ends relax, moving outward, as the hairspring strength increases. The action is much like an inexpensive thermostat in the home. This movement of the rim segments changes the moment of inertia of the balance (wheel), compensating for the alteration in the hairspring strength.

Adjustment to Temperature

This is sometimes referred to as adjustment to heat and cold. It requires a temperature compensated balance. The balance has pairs of screws (180 degrees apart) set into the rim. These give the balance mass, which sets the basic rate at which it oscillates. One pair may be the meantime screws (which can be identified - if present - by being longer than the other screws), used to bring the rate deviation to minimum (with the regulator in its center position) after all of the other adjustments have been made. The locations of most of the pairs of screws (each pair is 180 degrees apart) on the balance (wheel) rim are chosen to provide the best match of change in moment of inertia to change in hairspring strength (there are extra pairs of holes so that the screws may be moved to the best possible positions). The object is to keep the balance (wheel) oscillating at the same rate over the specified temperature range.

Adjustment to Position

The next level is adjustment to position. This is adjustment to maintain the same rate of balance (wheel) oscillation, regardless of which of the specified positions the watch is in. There are a total of six positions. Unfortunately, the number or the positions to which the watch is adjusted isn't specified for most watches built prior to 1905-1908. Typically, unspecified adjustment to position means adjustment to three positions, but there are a number of instances in which it means five, or sometimes 6, positions. Adjustment to three positions most likely means dial up, dial down and stem up.

In discussing adjustment to positions (on the NAWCC Pocket Watch Message Board, 26-Aug-06), John Runciman, quoting from the book Watch and Clock Information Please W. H. Samelius” by O. R. Hagans, posted a definition of adjustment to four positions as dial up, stem up, stem at the 3 o'clock position and stem at the 9 o'clock position. [1] It was also stated in O. R. Hagans' book that adjustment to two positions was defined as dial up and stem up, while adjustment to one position was stem up with watch inclined 45 degrees to the rear The marking "Adjusted 2 Positions" is only occasionally seen, seemingly only on low grade Swiss watches. An indication of adjustment to one position is almost never seen.

Watches adjusted to five positions include the three positions of stem up, stem at the 3 o'clock position and stem at the 9 o'clock position, plus the dial up and dial down positions. Robert Sweet once posted several pages from the 1914 edition of the Hamilton Timekeeper which lists the five positions in order as (1) dial up, (2) dial down, (3) stem up, (4) stem at 9 o'clock and (5) stem at 3 o'clock. The 6th position is stem down at the 6 o'clock position. These positions are illustrated in a 1924 Illinois ad'. Since temperature variation is usually greater than positional variation, watches marked to be adjusted to position include adjustment to temperature. A high grade Swiss watch marked to be adjusted usually implies adjustment to all positions, wherein "all" may be 5 or 6 positions. Nevertheless, it takes a bit of experience to distinguish those movements to which this applies.

Some watches are marked “8 Adjustments.” Depending upon the manufacturer’s specification at the moment that the watch was made, this can mean adjustment to temperature, isochronism (see below) and 6 positions. Or, it may mean adjustment to heat, cold, isochronism and 5 positions. To clear up the ambiguity, in the early 1950’s, Elgin marked its top (and only) railroad pocket watch “9 Adjustments.

Dave Chaplain reported the following
Tariff Act of 1930 Discussion of Adjustment, on the NAWCC American Pocket Watch Message Board on September 18, 2008 (scroll down to post #37).

"The Tariff Act of 1930 has fees associated with watches of varying adjustments with a possibility of 9 total adjustments as follows:

"6 adjustments to position: stem up, stem left, stem right, dial up, dial down, stem down - another government publication of 1946 refers to these 6 positions and states that most "high quality watches" are adjusted to 5 positions and omitting the stem down adjustment, and "good quality watches" with 3 position adjustments most often are the stem up, dial up and dial down postions

"2 adjustments to temperature: hot and cold - the 1946 paper describes "modern monometallic solid balances" ... "with hairspring made of Elinvar or some similar nickel steel alloy" as making these temperature adjustments moot

"1 adjustment to isochronism"

Another point on the subject of adjusting was posted by Don Dahlberg, pointing out that the rate to which watches were adjusted varied from grade to grade.

The marking "Adjusted" on a movement means whatever the manufacturer said it meant at the time that the watch was built. Lacking descriptive factory literature, we have no way of knowing what that means today. Unless a watch is specifically marked as to the number of positions to which it is adjusted, such as a watch that is only marked "Adjusted," the only way to know that number (if it is adjusted to positions at all) would be to identify the grade and find the manufacturer's description of the position adjustment for that grade. For example, the U.S. Watch Co. of Waltham's "The President" grade is only marked "Adjusted" (in the 9 o'clock position - right at the junction of the two damaskeened circles), yet U.S. at Waltham's description states that it is "adjusted to heat, cold, isochronism and all positions, ..." Another example is Waltham's grade No. 35, which is only marked "Adjusted." The description of that grade is "Adjusted to Heat and Cold, and in all Six Positions." A lesser example is the model 92 Appleton, Tracy & Co., which simply marked "Adjusted." A February 1902 Waltham ad describes it to be only adjusted to three positions. When the Appleton, Tracy & Co. Premier grade was introduced a few months later, it too was only marked "Adjusted," but an October 1902 Waltham ad states that it was adjusted to five positions.

Adjustment to Isochronism

A watch is isochronous when the balance assembly (balance and balance spring) completes a vibration in equal time whether the watch is fully wound (large rotational angle) and almost wound down (low rotational angle). This is a function of the hairspring - the coiled spring attached to the balance wheel.

The power output of the mainspring (the spring that is wound when winding a watch) decreases as it unwinds over the course of the day. This causes the balance wheel (which is coupled to the balance spring) to rotate through a greater rotational angle (amplitude) when the mainspring is just wound and a lesser rotational angle as the mainspring unwinds. After WWI better quality watches were provided longer mainsprings which added 12 hours of power. These mainsprings provided power output that was nearly constant over the first 20 hours after a full winding. This nearly flat 20 hour power output of the mainspring simplified isochronism.

By keeping the watch at almost full wind, the self-winding wristwatch of today has simplified the role of isochronism even further.

Problems Affecting Watch Rates

Don Dahlberg has written an excellent post of the [URL='http://mb.nawcc.org/showthread.php?115444-Timing-A-992B&p=883395#post883395']Problems That Affect A Watch's Rate
(scroll down to post #20).

Adjusted Extra or Special Adjusted

Extra and special, as in "Adjusted Extra" or "Special Adjusted" or some similar marking, means whatever the manufacturer said it meant at the time that the watch was built. It is only infrequently that we know (as opposed to making an "educated guess") what that means today.

Private Label Adjustment

It seems that once a watch is recognized as a special order, or private label, watch, it doesn't really matter from which run/grade it was drawn. The only thing that matters is what was contracted for by the buyer. It was only for convenience (i.e., production efficiency) that private label movements for higher grade watches were taken from runs of high grade watches, thus minimizing the task of meeting special order requirements. Although, in general, the finish and adjustment of a private label watch may be the same as that of the grade of the run from which it was taken (in some cases the finish is visually different), until one sees the retailer's description of the watch, it is frequently indeterminate whether its adjustment matches that of the factory run from which it was drawn. Sometimes the adjustment level marked on the watch is different from that of the grade of the run from which it was taken, as exemplified by the "John C. Pierik & Co." movement shown and discussed in a NAWCC Message Board thread. It is from a run of Sangamo grade movements, but its adjustment marking isn't as high as that on a Sangamo grade and its jewel settings aren't as high of a quality. Another example of this is the "Benjamin Franklin" marked Illinois model 5 movement shown in this NAWCC Message Board thread. It too is from a run of Sangamo grade movements, but just like the "John C. Pierik & Co." movement, it is also marked to be only adjusted to five positions.

Lack of actual grade identification and indeterminate adjustment are probably the key reasons why private label watches were eventually prohibited in railroad time service. A classic example of differences from the factory grade are the earlier model 1883 Waltham's Canadian Railway Movements. They were pulled from runs of 15-jewel No. 25, No. 35 and Appleton, Tracy & Co. grades, but all of the Canadian Pacific Railway model 1883s are 17-jewel watches, the exact adjustment of which is indeterminate. Although the adjustment was probably as good as, or better then, that of the grade No. 25 or AT&Co. runs from which they were drawn, the No. 35 was described in the late 1880s as being adjusted to six positions. In 1906, the Canadian Railway movements, by then, clearly factory grades, were described as being adjusted to three positions. But the description of 10 or more years earlier for the Canadian grades, when the No. 35 and No. 25 grade movements were still being made, has yet to come to light.

Adjusted By Retailer

A factor that confuses the issue of the level of adjustment of private label watches simply marked "Adjusted," is that the final finish (polishing of pivots, adjustment to temperature and position, etc.) may have been done by the company who had specially ordered the watches. A late nineteenth century example of this possibility is the "Wathier's Railway Watch" shown in that firm's May 1892 ad. Although the watch shown, Illinois Watch Co. serial number 1051479, a grade 65-S, is only described by the Illinois factory as being adjusted to an unspecified number of positions (probably three), the Joseph P. Wathier & Co. privately labeled movement is described as being adjusted to six positions. Adjustment to six positions was very unusual at that date. The ad mentions "... our own factory ..." While one shouldn't believe everything in company ads, this does give rise to the possibility that the watch was finished by Wathier. By the way, that specific movement still exists and may be seen as Illustration No. 26 in the book “Railroad Timekeeping,” James L. Hernick, NAWCC Chicagoland Chapter #3 and the Midwest Regional Convention, 1996.

The Ball Watch Co. serves as another, more specific example. Under an earlier 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. Later, in 1905, Ball contracted with Elgin for 18-size, open-face, Official RR Standard watches in both 17-jewel (grade No. 333) and 21-jewel (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.



  1. ^John also pointed out: "For those not familiar with W. H. Samelius he organized the Elgin watchmakers College in 1921 and served as its dean for 33 years."

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