Antique Appraisals

What’s It Worth?: Accidents led to ‘official’ railroad watches, time zone standardization

What’s It Worth?

Railroad watches came into being after trainmen keeping different times led to a number of accidents in the 19th century.
Railroad watches came into being after trainmen keeping different times led to a number of accidents in the 19th century. Contributed photos

In today’s edition of What’s It Worth? we answer a reader’s question about his father’s railroad pocket watch. It is the kind of small item that has had a very big impact on our lives, here in America and around the world.

Q. I have an old pocket watch that was handed down to me from my father. It is a Hamilton Railway Special, 10k gold-filled case, 21 jewels and inside the case are various markings. I would very much like to know the approximate age, as well as an estimated value. The watch runs, but always seems to stop after a short period of time. Thank you. — Ken in Richland

A. Railroad watches play an important role in American history. Here’s a short version of how the “official” railroad watch came to be.

Before the Civil War, time in America was kept, generally speaking, by locality. And the time of day varied from state to state, territory to territory and even town to town. Really.

If Minneapolis set its time to be noon when the sun was at its zenith, and Chicago also made it noon when the sun was at its highest point above the Windy City, that could lead to the following times; when it was noon in Chicago, it would be about 11:40 a.m. in Minneapolis. The cities are 350 miles apart.

There were no standard time zones. Each city could make up its own time. This wasn’t much of a concern when people couldn’t travel very far, very fast. Then came the railroads. Suddenly what time it was became a really big deal. Not knowing the time — and using different times — led to disasters on the tracks.

One of the first incidents that brought about a change in how time was kept on American railways in the United States happened in 1853.

Two trains — heading toward each other on the same track — collided, as the engineers had different times set on their watches. Fourteen passengers died.

Other similar collisions led to the setting up of the General Time Convention, a committee of railway companies agreeing to agree on scheduling and times.

Their work eventually evolved into the standard time zones we know in America and Canada today, and for that matter, all around the world.

Once standard times were established, it was critical that everyone working on the railroad was on the same page — time wise. Thus, the Official Railroad Watch was born.

By 1887, requirements for such a watch included: a minimum of 17 jewels; that it keep accurate time varying by no more than four seconds per day; display the time in bold, legible Arabic numbers; and pass regular test for accuracy. These watches also had to be “lever set,” which required taking off the glass face to set the time. This prevented the wrong time being accidentally set.

Ken’s father’s watch meets all of these requirements and many more that make it a railroad watch.

It is a 21-jewel Hamilton, Model 922B. The serial number indicates it was made some time in the year 1947. Hamilton has been making authorized “railroad quality” watches since 1912.

In more recent years, timepieces by Hamilton were featured in the futuristic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Elvis Presley wore the innovative Hamilton electronic Ventura model wristwatch in the film Blue Hawaii. Hamilton is still in business today, as part of the international Swatch group of watch brands.

Hamilton railroad watches such as this model are eagerly sought by modern collectors. Fair market value for a watch of this quality ranges from $200 for one that is not running and has condition issues to about $500 for a timepiece in excellent condition.

The fact this watch has a Hamilton company case will place its value at the higher end of that scale.

As to this watch running for awhile and then stopping, it is possible all it needs is a professional cleaning to put it in good operating order.

Terry K. Maurer, 15-year senior member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America, is a personal property appraiser in the Tri-Cities. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What’s It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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