RAILROADS & WATCHES: A CLOSELY LINKED HISTORY

The development of railroads and the development of watches and time standardization are closely linked. The US railroad watch standards expressively excluded Swiss watches, however, IWC was part of the Italian railroad history. But how did watches evolve to be indispensable equipment of railroaders?

 

As early as 400 B.C. time was measured by sun dials. As the sun reaches its zenith in different places at different points in time the sun dials showed a local time. At the advent of mechanical timepieces, most of them kept in monasteries, the mechanical timepiece was daily adjusted to the sun dial.

 

When industrialization started, for the first time in history huge volumes of crude materials and goods had to be transported over great distances. That fostered the development of railroads and railroad companies to run them. But to set up timetables and to run trains according to timetables is quite complicated using the different local times of the different stations in the railroad net. The longer the distances grew and the more places were integrated in the railroad network, the more the use of local time turned out to be impracticable.

 

Italy by order of the King in 1866 introduced the local time of Rome as the standard time to be used by all railroads and for all telegraph and postal services. So the turret clock of the local railway station in many places was the only clock showing the standard time, while the town hall and churches still showed the local time.

 

The watch industry benefitted a lot from the demand for more watches and clocks caused by the constantly growing railroad networks and the rail connections run on them. The demand was not only for pocket watches used by the train staff, but as well for turret clocks and for precision pendulum clocks as master clocks, regularly checked against the time signal of observatories transmitted via telegraph.

 

So we move on to railroad pocket watches, watches which in these days were indispensable equipment and today are sought after collectibles. Watches which can be clearly identified by their distinct style not made to be fashionable, but legible, accurate and sturdy. In Italy they were issued by the railroad companies and normally showed the logo of the respective railroad company and an inventory number. The conductor in chief was responsible for adhering to the timetable and the security of the train. For that reason, he was equipped with a pocket watch as well as with a lantern, a whistle, flags and detonators in order to stop other trains, when his train blocked the line.

 

The watch of the conductor in chief was set to the time provided by a master clock before the train service started and “transported” the exact time to smaller stations not integrated in the time signals by telegraph. Thus on all trains the train conductors in chief and all stations masters enjoyed synchronized time. Only that allowed to run the trains adhering to the time tables published.

—Fig. 1: the lip and the lever mechanism of an IWC pocket watch issued by the Tramways a Vapore Piemontese (TVP).

That all trains departed and arrived on time was not only a matter of comfort for the passengers and of efficiency in running the railroad net, but as well a matter of safety: Most lines were single-track and therefore it was necessary to avoid that two trains riding in opposite directions used the same track section at the same time. Therefore, watches showing the accurate time were essential. An accident in Kipton (Ohio, USA) made the railroad companies aware of the fact, their conductors not only needed accurate, but as well reliable and sturdy watches: The watch of a conductor had stopped for four minutes and then started again to tick. So he thought to encounter the opposite train in seven minutes, while it was only three minutes ahead. The result was a head-on collision resulting in eight casualties plus numeral injured people. As a consequence the US railroad companies published a strict nationwide specification for railroad watches, while in Europe each company had its own standard which governed the procurement of watches.

 

It became common, that all railroad watches had a second hand, thus giving a clear indication to the user, whether the watch was working or not. Most companies asked for bold roman numerals. And of course they asked for accurate and sturdy watches, which at the time only well known brands could supply, especially Longines, Zenith and of course IWC.

 

A specialty with Italian railroad watches were devices to prevent the conductors in chief from re-adjusting the watch on their own: Their watches were to be set only by the respective department. For that reason, these watches were not crown-set nor set by a pusher near the crown. Rather a mechanism was used to switch between winding and hand-setting normally only seen with hunters: The hands can only be adjusted if a lever was pulled out. This lever was hidden between two lips of the case, both lips having an eyelet which allowed to secure the watch by pulling through a wire seal. Fig. 1 shows the lip and the lever mechanism of an IWC pocket watch issued by the Tramways a Vapore Piemontese (TVP).

 

But this mechanism and lock is only found with the watch of the conductor in chief. The watches of other train staff and those of the station master had no such devices. Nevertheless of course it was advantageous to have several accurate watches aboard a train and therefore at least one major Italian railroad company offered watches – with their logo and an inventory number – to their employees at favorable prices. So in case the watch of the conductor in chief stopped averaging the time shown by the watches of other train staff could help.

 

In Italy in the late 19th century three major railroad companies dominated the market:

  • In the Western part of Italy the railroads were mainly run by the Società per le Strade Ferrate del Mediterraneo, abbreviated to Rete Mediterranea or RM, located in Turin
  • In the Eastern part of Italy the Società per le Strade Ferrate Meridionali, abbreviated Rete Adriatica or RA, with its headquarter in Florence was predominating
  • In Sicily and Sardinia this role was taken on by the Società per le Strade Ferrate della Sicilia, abbreviated to Rete Sicula or RS.
—Fig. 2: IWC sold at least 7027 watches to RM
—Fig. 3: IWC sold at least 7027 watches to RM

On April 24, 1905 these three companies were merged by act No. 137 into a single state run railroad company named Ferrovie dello Stato (FS).

 

RM obviously in the beginning bought watches from different brands. But in 1891 RM decided to appoint IWC as their exclusive supplier of watches. IWC – in the beginning via their agent Pugni in Milan, later on direct – sold at least 7027 watches to RM, some of them with the eyelets allowing to secure them with lead wire seals, most of them without. Fig. 2 and 3 show such watches, the dial of the watch Fig. 2 presumably not original and showing no inventory number (as many of those early watches).

In 1891 Rete Mediterranea decided to appoint IWC as their exclusive supplier of watches

The RM dials in the course of time have undergone several changes. The first version – at least of the version for normal staff – had no second hand and showed the minutes in an outer ring in Arabic numbers, the hours from 1-12 in bold roman figures and the hours from 13-24 in red on an inner ring (Fig. 4, RM 5393). They soon were superseded by dials with a sub-second hand (Fig. 5, RM 5926)

 

Later the minutes in the outer ring were thought to be dispensable and the red hour circle 13-24 migrated from the inner to the outer circle.

—Fig. 4 : RM 5393
Fig. 5 : RM 5926

The first watches were sold by Pugni and had no factory engraved inventory number. How many of those watches were sold by Pugni to RM we don’t know for sure. So the number of 7027 IWC pocket watches sold to RM may be a little bit higher, because the total of 7027 comprises only watches documented in the IWC sales ledgers marked as RM or delivered direct to RM plus those watches spotted on auctions etc., which were clearly marked RM. From 1894 onward the watches got factory engraved RM-logos and inventory Nos. (Fig. 3) which show up in the IWC sales records and give evidence these were RMs. From 1898 onward RM ordered directly, no longer via Pugni.

 

The last order of 300 pieces was shipped to RM in 1904, not long before RM merged into FS. Another 356 pieces were delivered to FS (FS 11466 to 13433 with gaps in the numbering) and it appears that the sequence of inventory numbers was continued with FS, only replacing the logo RM by FS. With FS apparently all stations were included in the telegraph service providing exact time and therefore FS bought no single watch with eyelets for sealing from IWC. Most likely for this reason RM as well ordered so a small number of watches with eyelets. All watches procured by RM and FS had movements Cal. 52 mounted. All cases are marked on the inner side of the back with an oblong in which in block letters were given “INTERNATIONAL WATCH CO.”


As the public knew that the railroad companies asked for watches both accurate and sturdy all major watch manufacturers strived for such orders and made extensive marketing use of orders they were awarded. So it is not surprising that IWC in a catalogue from about 1900 proudly presented the backs of an Italian RM and a French Chemin de Fer de l’Est railroad watch.

 

Orders for railroad watches were not only prestigious, but as well volume orders. The economies of scale of such volume orders allowed to realize some special features peculiar for the individual railroad company and its special requirements. With RM it was the hand setting à targette to facilitate that nobody could set the hands without breaking the wire seal. No other IWC ever showed such a device. The IWC watches for the French railroad company Chemin de Fer de l’Est show another special feature, i.e. the lever of the fine regulation device could be operated without opening the watch. This allowed to screw dome and the middle piece of the watch case dust-tight together and so to enhance the time between two services of the movement. Fig. 6 shows the back of a Chemin de Fer de l’Est, Fig. 7 the closed dome with a regulator lever even longer as the famous “Jones Arrow” and a scale for fine-tuning the watch.

—Fig. 6: the back of a Chemin de Fer de l’Est
Fig. 7: the closed dome with a regulator lever even longer as the famous “Jones Arrow” and a scale for fine-tuning the watch

In Fig. 8 you see the more or less normal fine-tuning lever on the balance cock, which is a little bit bend upwards so that the guard on the inner side of the dome when the dome closes is imposed on this lever without scraping on the balance cock and destroying its gilding. By the help of this guard on the inner side of the dome the regulating lever inside the watch and on the outer side of the dome move synchronous. As well a feature not seen with any other IWC pocket watch.

 

So railroad watches do no only represent the evolving industrialization of the Western World and stand for accuracy and sturdiness, but as well for sophisticated technical features not found elsewhere.

A personal obituary for my co-author Giovanni Ambrogio:

Only about a month ago the article above was finished and it was scheduled to be released online in Q3 2016. Giovanni’s sudden death made this timeline obsolete. As a tribute to him and his passion for “our” brand, IWC, decision was made to publish it already now.

 

Giovanni’s interest in Italian railroad watches was sparked by his Italian roots. He started some researches and discussed this topic with David Seyffer. At about the same time I had a chat with David Seyffer on IWC railroad watches, what we know today, which part of this knowledge has already been published, which part is still awaiting its publication and which facts are still unknown or need final verification.

 

So the idea was born to draw up a new article after the last one I co-authored with Fritz Wagener about ten years ago, and David Seyffer made the contact to Giovanni.

—Fig. 8

Giovanni and I met for the first time on a warm summer evening in Düsseldorf and we discussed a lot of figures and pics on our laptops and watches lying on the table. I saw many collectors interested in serious research, but few made it to the end. Giovanni was of a different stamp! He wanted to go into the details. He felt a little bit uncomfortable as he had no experience in research nor in drafting such articles. But he wanted to learn it and he wanted to make it. He contacted Italian collectors of railroad watches, scanned the internet and gathered loads of information. In the end the article above was planned to be his debut as author of watch articles – and it was not intended as a one-hit wonder, but as a starting point for many forthcoming articles. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be …

 

I would like to see more fellow collectors like Giovanni taking the plunge not only to produce wrist shots but starting serious research with a view to later on share the knowledge gathered. A farewell to a great, open minded, passionate fellow collector! Good bye Giovanni!

 

Thomas König

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