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Swiss Railroad Watch

Contrary to popular belief, Swiss watches were used throughout North America (Canada, Mexico & the United States) in railroad time service. As occurred with many other details of the time service rules, the acceptance, popularity and use of specific makes and grades varied from railroad to railroad and from decade to decade. Frequently referred to by the phrase "Railroad Watch," these high grade timepieces were actually named "Standard Watch" in railroad documents and by railroaders.

Swiss Watches Marketed for Railroad Use in North American

the following Swiss companies, and probably some others, marketed pocket watches for North American railroad time service use:

Buren Watch Co.
Burlington Watch Co. (US Co., marketed Swiss-made standard watches in Canada, made by Henry Moser & Co.)
Vacheron & Constantin


Canada did not have a watch industry. Since all watches were imported, there was no real reason for Canadian railway time service rules, nor the railroaders themselves, to favor American-built watches, thus Swiss watches of suitable grade were widely accepted and used in Canada. Extrapolating from the watch service records of Dr. George F. Ritchie (a watch inspector for the Canadian Pacific Railway, copies of whose watch repair ledgers were donated to the NAWCC Library & Research Center by Larry Buchan) and from observations of watches offered by dealers over the years, the most popular make of the Swiss standard watches seems to have been Longines, which enjoyed an almost 3-to-1 advantage over the second most popular Swiss make, Omega. However, Longines' numbers pale when compared Waltham (20-to-1) and Hamilton (10-to-1).

The United States

This was not the case in the U.S. One Set of Rules from the Late 1880s states (in part): "2. The standard determined on shall be of a grade which shall be equal to what is known among the general American movements as the "15-jeweled patent regulator, adjusted to heat and cold, ..."

Note: Although this is generally taken to mean that watches of equal or better grade than described in section 2 would be accepted, some people apparently read it as meaning that the watches needed to be of American manufacture.

Supposedly, one argument against the use of Swiss watches in U.S. railroad time service was that Swiss watches were hand-made/finished and that there would be variability in the quality of work done by American watchmakers in fitting replacement parts. While this argument might have been true in the 1870s, the watches marketed by the Swiss companies thirty years later, in the twentieth century, were machine-made, with mass-produced, identical parts, as easy to replace as those for American watches. Another supposed argument against U.S. acceptance was an assumed lack of availability of spare parts. However, it has never been satisfactorily explained why parts would be harder to obtain in Billings, Montana than in Regina, Saskatchewan (where Swiss watches were in use in Canadian railway time service). Perhaps (and to date, no documentation has been seen for this) it was because railroaders, being heavily unionized (via the railroad brotherhoods) would not accept watches made by non-union labor.

All the same, in the U.S., during different eras, Swiss-made watches were accepted into railroad time service on a number of railroads including:

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (Extract of H.S. Montgomery's Report, 1898)
Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (J.W. Forsinger Letter, February 7, 1900)
Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (LS&MS Instructions to Watch Inspectors, Section 2, 1891)
New York Central


Not much has been published in the U.S. about time service programs on Mexican railroads. Several short notices appeared in the Keystone and the Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review around the turn of the century when the Mexican Central Railway and the Mexican National Railroad (Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico) instituted time service programs. Both programs were under the supervision of Mr. M.E. Sommer, who was also reported to be the General Watch Inspector of several additional Mexican railroads. The watch requirements themselves were similar to those in place in both Canada and the U.S. and there were a number of Swiss watches, which had been accepted into service in those countries, that would have met those requirements. The standard (requirements) were stated as:

18 size
Open Face - wind at figure 12
Arabic Dial w/ Heavy Figures and Hands
Adjusted to Heat, Cold, Isochronism and Positions
Patent Regulator
Breguet Hairspring

Other published information has come from Larry Treiman. In a NAWCC Bulletin Answer Box response, he reported that watches made by the Buren Watch Co., Switzerland, were imported during the 1960s and early 1970s by Servicio de Tiempo, a division of H. Steele y Cia., for use in railroad time service on Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico.



"Mexico - The Foremost Railway in our Sister Republic adopts a Model Watch Inspection Service," The Keystone, August 1899

"Time Inspection Service on the Mexican National Railroad," The Jeweler's Circular - Weekly and Horological Review, June 5, 1901, pg. 14.


Back issues of the NAWCC Bulletin are available online to NAWCC members who are currently logged in at http://nawcc.org/index.php/nawcc-bulletin/past-issues-.

"The Answer Box - A High Grade Hamilton Railroad Pocket Watch," Larry Treimen, NAWCC Bulletin No. 296, June 1995, pp. 382-383.

"Hamilton, Elgin, Buren, Mexico & Haste," Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 301, April 1996, pp. 216-217.

"Railroaders' Corner - Buren & Its Mexican Railroad Watches," Ed Ueberall and Kent Singer, NAWCC Bulletin No. 310, October 1997, pp. 592-595.

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Current Discussion: Main discussion

  1. tom mcintyre

    tom mcintyre Technical Admin
    Staff Member NAWCC Star Fellow NAWCC Ruby Member Sponsor

    Aug 24, 2000
    retired SW dev
    Sam marked Larry Treiman's name with a HELP code, so I wrote a short bio of Larry's NAWCC background.

    We could and perhaps should do this for everyone we reference in articles. It is customary to do so in the Wikipedia articles as I have noticed.
  2. kent

    kent Registered User
    Gibbs Literary Award NAWCC Fellow NAWCC Silver Member

    Aug 26, 2000
    Just putting some material on NAWCC Message Board