Conductor and Engineer compare time circa 1930, U.S. Library of Congress collectionApproved Railroad Watches:

Each railroad either established their own requirements and had its own inspection service, or contracted an inspection service to ensure that all watches in use by specified personnel meet standard requirements. Different railroads accepted different watches. While some railroads listed specific makes and grades as acceptable, others just listed requirements. Not all watches manufactured as meeting railroad standards were approved by all railroads.

A standard watch is one that met the general time service requirements that were in effect at the time that it was built. Watch standards continued to evolve as time progressed and technology improved, however watches which met railroad requirement at the time they entered service typically could continue to be used as long as they remained in first-class condition and continued to meet the 30 second per week requirement.

American made 18-size, 15-jewel, patent regulator, "adjusted" pocket watches in both hunting and open face cases dominated railroad service during the later part of nineteenth century. Through the 1880's "adjusted" typically meant adjusted to isochronism, heat and cold, although the highest grade watch movements were also adjusted to positions.

During the 1890's 18-size, 17-jewel pocket watches dominated sales for railroad service, with most being adjusted to positions by the middle of the decade.

By the first decade of the twentieth century new smaller model "16-size" pocket watches began to appear in significant quantities. Requirements for new watches to be used in railroad service changed - eventually only open-face watches were allowed, fewer 18-size movements were allowed, and the minimum number of jewels was increased to 17 jewels, 21-jewel watches became popular. The marking "Adjusted" gave way to "Adjusted 5 Positions" and just about all new standard watches were fitted with a double roller. Total 16-size watch movement production exceeded 18-size watches by 1915. By 1920 production of 18-size railroad grade movements had ended.

Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Co. - 1891

Crescent St Model 83Instructions issued by Webb C. Ball, Chief Inspector of Watches, on August 15, 1891 indicated the standard adopted by the Company for its employes' watches now in service is one is equal to what is generally known among American movements as the "15-jewels, Patent Regulator, adjusted." Ball indicated this quality of movement "is represented by the Elgin Raymond and No. 70, by the Waltham No. 35 and Crescent Street, by Hampden Perry and Railway, Nos 59 and 60, by the Howard 'Gilt Heat and Cold,' and all grades above those named."

New watches were to be "higher grade which quality is represented by the Hampden New Railway and New No. 60, by the Waltham Crescent Street, by the Howard 'Gilt Heat and Cold,' and all grades equal quality and above."

Ball required watch inspection every two weeks and rejected watches which did not meet standards in order to ensure accuracy and facilitate safe railroad operation.

Illinois Central Railroad Co. - 1892

The Illinois Central Railroad Co. announced the inauguration of a system of watch inspection on June 15, 1892, which was reported in The Jewelers' Circular - Weekly and Horological Review July 6, 1892, indicated the minimum standard of excellence adopted "for watches is of a grade equal to what is known among American movements as fifteen-jewel, patent regulator, adjusted to heat and cold, the variation of which must not exceed 30 seconds per week."

Employees were required to submit their watches for quarterly examination and for weekly comparison with standard time to the various local inspectors who have been appointed for the purpose, and who will be under the general supervision of Giles, Bro. & Co., who were appointed general inspectors. The rules applied to train masters, train dispatchers, enginemen, trainmen, towermen, yard masters, assistant yard masters, depot masters, station agents, engine foremen, and to bridge and section foremen.

General Railroad Timepiece Standards - 1893

American Waltham Model 1892 Crescent Street, circa 1901The railroad industry was called upon to create standards for watches which all railroads would eventually follow. By 1893 the General Railroad Timepiece Standards Commission presented new guidelines, referred to as the General Railroad Timepiece Standards, which required watches in use by employees responsible for train movement meet the following recommended minimum standards:

  • Be open face (no lid over the dial), size 18 or 16 (Lancashire Gauge for measuring watches, as measured at the dial plate, size 18 equals 1 23/30" or 44.86 mm, size 16 equals 1 11/16" or 43.18 mm) read more about watch sizes
  • Plain white dial, bold black hands, and bold Arabic numbers
  • Have the winding stem at 12 o'clock
  • Be lever set (to set the time, the case had to be opened, lever pulled out to set the hands, to prevent an accidental change, rather than pendant set)
  • Have a minimum of 17 jewels, a double roller, steel escape wheel, micrometric regulator and grade on back plate
  • Be adjusted to at least 5 positions (stem up, left side up, right side up, face up and face down)
  • Temperature compensated for 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Keep time accurately to within a gain or loss no more than than 30 seconds a week

Following the adoption of the 1893 General Railroad Timepiece Standards, watch manufactures designed watches to meet railroad standard requirements. It should be pointed out that many of railroads did not adopt all of these recommended standards for another decade. In publishing watch requirements railroads commonly continued to accept hunting case watches with hunting case movements, roman numerals on dials, open-face pendant-set watches and a minimum of 15-jewels watches, until 1906-1908. Watches adjusted to 3 positions, rather than the recommended 5 positions, were generally accepted in railroad service until around 1907, with some railroads including the ATSF continuing to accept them into the 1920's.

Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Co. - 1898

The Jewelers' Circular & Weekly Horological Review reported on March 2, 1898 that the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway Co. and the Peoria & Eastern Railway Co. had issued new requirements for all new watches placed in service, to be of the highest grades and most carefully finished and adjusted American made watches, represented by the Howard Nickel 18-size New 1896 Model; by the Waltham Vanguard and Crescent Street "Vanguard Model" (1892 model), both open face and hunting; by the Illinois Watch Co. Bunn Special, both open face and hunting; by the Hampden Special Railway, both open face and hunting; by the Elgin Nos. 181, 149 and 150, and by the Ball Official Standard Watches. All watches placed in open face cases must wind at figure 12.

The "old" watches currently in service were required to be of a minimum standard grade equal to what are known among American watches as the "15-jewels, patent regulator, adjusted" and must be in condition to keep time within 30 seconds per week.

Web C. Ball - 1906

Ball Official Railroad Standard 16-size watch manufactured 1920 by WalthamWebb C. Ball built a time service which grew to control the inspection of watches railmen used on half of the U.S.'s railroads, according to Ball. Webb C. Ball published the following list of watches approved for railroad use by the Ball Time Service in The Jewelers' Circular Weekly and Horological Review in January 1906:

American Waltham Watch Co.

16 Size: "Riverside Maximus," 19-21 jeweled, double roller;
"Riverside," 17 and 19 jeweled, double roller;
"Vanguard," 19, 21 and 23 jeweled, double roller.
18 Size: "Crescent Street," 19, 21 and 23 jeweled, double roller;
"Vanguard," 19, 21 and 23 jeweled, double roller.

Ball Watch Co.

16 Size: "Official Standard," 17 and 19 jeweled, double roller.
18 Size: "Official Standard," 17, 19 and 21 jeweled, double roller.

Elgin Watch Co.

16 Size: Nos. 162, 246, 270 and 280, 17 and 21 jeweled, single roller.
18 Size: “B.W. Raymond” 3/4 plate, 19 jeweled, single roller;
"Veritas" three-quarter plate, 21 jeweled, single roller and three-quarter plate 23 jeweled, double roller;
"Father Time" full plate, 21 jeweled, single roller.

Hamilton Watch Co.

16 Size: Nos. 960, 970 and 990, 21 jeweled, double roller;
No. 992, 21 jeweled, single roller.
18 Size: Nos; 938 and 942, 17 and 21 jeweled, double roller;
No. 940, 21 jeweled, single roller.

Hampden Watch Co.

16 Size: "Wm. McKinley" 21 jeweled, single roller.
18 Size: "Special Railway," 21 and 23 jeweled, single roller;
"New Railway," 21 and 23 jeweled, single roller.

Illinois Watch Co.

16 Size: "No. 189, Bridge Model, 21 jeweled, single roller;
"Sangamo," 21 and 23 jeweled, single roller.
18 Size: "Bunn Special," 21 and 24 jeweled, single roller.

Rockford Watch Co.

16 Size: Nos. 505, 515, and 525, 21 jeweled, double roller.

Santa Fe Railway Revised Watch Inspection Rules effective September 1, 1921

Hamilton 992, mfg 1909Prior to September 1, 1921 only conductors, engineers, yardmasters, assistant yardmasters and foremen of switch engines were required to carry standard watches. Effective September 1, 1921 this list was extended to include brakemen and flagmen, train porters, firemen, hostlers, herders, switch tenders and pilots. Instead of weekly inspections, watches were to be inspected semi-monthly. (as published in the Santa Fe Magazine, July 1921, pg. 62)

Requirements for a Standard Watch after May 15 are as follows:

  • 17 or more jewels
  • lever-setting
  • adjusted to three positions, pendant up, dial up and dial down
  • adjusted to temperature and isochronism
  • Breguet hair-spring
  • steel escape wheel
  • double-roller escapement
  • open face case with winding stem at "12"
  • perform within a limit of error not exceeding thirty seconds per week.

Watches in service or owned by employees conforming to the standard requirements heretofore in effect, if in first class condition, will be continued in service, but those obligated to secure watches must observe the changed requirements.

Non-breakable glass was not permitted as it was of a composition that could bend under pressure sufficiently to stop the hands on watches rendering it unsafe for railway service.

Southern Pacific Railroad Watch Standards — July 12, 1923

On July 12, 1923 the Southern Pacific Company established its own Bureau of Time Service for the Pacific System, S.A. Pope was appointed Supervisor. The Bureau was responsible for the semi-monthly inspection of watches owned by 12,000 employees by 105 Watch Inspectors. Watches were to be cleaned and oiled once each year, in no case to exceed 18 months, loaner watches were provided to employees at no charge while their own were undergoing service. (as published in the Southern Pacific Bulletin, August 1923, pgs. 3-7)

"The product of all representative American watch factories are acceptable, if the watches meet certain specifications which are briefly described as follows:

  • 16-size.
  • Adjusted to 5 positions, viz: dial up, dial down Pendant up, pendant right, pendant left.
  • Adjusted to temperature.
  • A double roller escapement; steel escape wheel; 19, 21, or 23 jewels; lever set.
  • Plain Arabic dial; plainness and clear reading of the dial being paramount where lights are uncertain such as in the cab or the caboose or by the light of the trainman's lamp.
  • Watches in railroad service may not vary to exceed 30 seconds per week."

Santa Fe Railway Approved Watches — February 1, 1929 (All 16 size)

Rule 2. The regulation watch designated as standard, is described as follows: "16 size, American, lever-setting, 19 jewels or more, open face, winding at "12", double roller escapement, steel escape wheel, adjusted to 5 positions, temperature and isochronism, which will rate within a variation not exceeding more than 6 seconds in 72 hour tests, pendant up, dial up, and dial down, and to be regulated within a variation not exceeding 30 seconds per week".

The following listed makes and grades meet the requirements and comprise a complete list of watches accepted:

American Waltham Watch Co.

23J Premier Maximus
23J Riverside Maximus
23J Vanguard 6 position winding indicator
23J Vanguard 6 position
21J Crescent Street
21J No. 645
19J Vanguard
19J Riverside

Ball Watch Co.

23J Official R.R. Standard
21J Official R.R. Standard
19J Official R.R. Standard

Elgin Watch Co.

23J Veritas
21J Veritas
21J B. W. Raymond
21J Father Time
21J No. 270
19 J B. W. Raymond

Hamilton Watch Co.

23J No. 950
21J No. 990
21J No. 992
19J No. 952
19J No. 996

Hampden Watch Co.

23J Special Railway
21J New Railway
19J Railway

Howard Watch Co.

All 23J
All 21J
All 19J

Illinois Watch Co.

23J Sangamo Special
23J Sangamo
23J Bunn Special
21J Bunn Special
21J Sangamo
21J A. Lincoln
19J Bunn

South Bend Watch Co.

21J No. 227
21J No. 229
21J No. 295
19J No. 293

Watches were also required to be protected with a suitable guard or chain. Watches also needed to have white enameled dials with black figures in upright position. Glasses were required to be replaced when badly scratched, cracked or chipped at the edge. Non-breakable glasses were prohibited. (as published in The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway System: Rules Governing Time Service for Employees in Train, Engine, Yard, Roadway and Station Service, Effective February 1, 1929, Form 1645 Standard)

Union Pacific Watch Requirements - June 1936

All new watches must be 16 size with double roller, adjusted to 5 positions and so stamped on plates, lever set, plain Arabic numbers, open faced and wind at 12:00, maintain a rate of 30 seconds. Watches listed as meeting the New Standard:

Ball - 21 and 23 jeweled "Official Railway Standard"
Elgin - 21 and 23 jeweled "B. W. Raymond"
Hamilton - 950 and 992
Illinois 21 and 23 jeweled "Buns Special"
Waltham - 23 jewel "Vanguard"

Post World War II

Vanguard 1623, mfg. 1948In the 1940's, some railroads specified minimum serial numbers of the different watch grades for acceptance. This is likely to correspond in part to the growing use of diesel-electric locomotives, and the anti-magnetic property of Elinvar used by Hamilton, and its equivalent used by Waltham and Elgin.

Minimum Serial Numbers Accepted After WWII on Some Railroads
(Composite List)



Jewels Min S/N
Waltham Vanguard 23 31,328,730
Elgin B. W. Raymond 23 38,300,000
Elgin B. W. Raymond 21 42,371,527
Hamilton 950 23 2,625,000
Hamilton 992 21 2,620,000
Hamilton 992B 21 C-001
Illinois Bunn Special 23 5,665,000
Illinois Bunn Special 21 5,665,000
Ball ORRS* 23 B648,500
Ball ORRS 21 B647,500
Ball ORRS 21 1-B1
*Official Rail Road Standard

Wrist watches approved for railroad use

Ball Official Railroad Standard wrist watch introduced in 1959Railroad grade pocket watches remained the only watches approved for railroad service until the late 1950's when railroad grade wrist watches were developed that could maintain the same accuracy. The "Trainmaster" with a Swiss made 21 jewel movement, introduced by Ball in 1959 and the "B.W. Raymond" with a 23 jewel American made movement, introduced by Elgin in 1960, were both high grade manual-wind wrist watches that were gradually approved for use on most American railroads. Ball later added a 25-jewel self-winding version of the watch.

In 1962 Bulova introduced a railroad-approved version of their Accutron tuning-fork wrist watch using an electronic "214" movement. Hamilton also produced a railroad electric wrist watch using a Hamilton 505 movement which was briefly approved for use on some railroads, although it was later withdrawn due to issues with reliability.

SEIKO introduced wrist watches with a quartz movement in the early-1970's. The inherent accuracy and low cost of production has resulted in the proliferation of quartz clocks and watches since that time. Today railroad employees can still purchase SEIKO, Citizen, Pulsar and Invicta quartz wrist watches with railroad approved dials.

Today the use of radios, automatic block signals, and central computer tracking of trains has lessened the role of the railroad watch on many railroads, yet watch requirements still remain important to safe railroad operation. On the Union Pacific, for example:

Rule 1.48 Time: While on duty, crew members must have a watch. Other employees must have access to a watch or clock.
The watch or clock must:
• Be in good working condition and reliable.
• Display hours, minutes, and seconds.
• Not vary from the correct time by more than 30 seconds.
• Be compared with the time source designated in special instructions.

Combined list of Railroad Grade Watches:

This is a combined list of railroad grade watches which is generally attributed Webb C. Ball. Not all of these were railroad approved even though all are railroad grade.


All official R.R. standard with 17, 19, 21 & 23J, adj.5p, 18 & 16S, open face.


18 Size: Columbus King, 21, 23, 25J
Railway King, 17-25J
Time King, 21-25J
16 Size: Ruby Model


18 Size: “Pennsylvania Railroad Co.” on dial, 15J & 17J, key wind and set, first model “B.W. Raymond”
“No. 349,” seventh model, 17-21J
Veritas, B.W. Raymond, or Father Time, 18S, 21-23J
16 Size: Grades 162, 270, 280, or 342 marked on back plate, 17-21J
Veritas, Father Time, or Paillard Non-Magnetic, 16S, 19-23J
571, 21J or 572, 19J
All wind indicator models


18 Size: Grade 946, 23J;
Grades 940, 942, 21J;
Grade 944, 19J;
Grades 926, 934, 936, 938, 948, 17J.
16 Size: Grades 950, 950B, 950E, 23J;
Grades 992, 992B, 992E, 954, 960, 970, 994, 990, 21J;
Grade 996, 19J;
Grades 972, 968, 964, 17J.


18 Size: Special Railway, 17J, 21J, 23J
New Railway, 23J & 17J
North Am. R.R., 21J
Wm. McKinley, 21J
John Hancock, 21J & 23J
John C. Duber, 21J, 18S
16 Size: 105, 21J
104, 23J
John C. Duber, 21J
Wm McKinley, 17, 21J
New Railway, 21J
Railway, 19J
Special Railway, 23J, 16S


All Howard models marked “Adjusted” or deer symbol
Split plate models, 18S or N size, 16S or L size


All 16S with 19, 21, & 23J


18 Size: Bunn 15J marked “Adjusted”, and Stuart, 15J marked “Adjusted,”
Benjamin Franklin, 17-24J
Bunn 17, 19, 21, 24J
Bunn Special 21-26J
Chesapeake & Ohio Sp., 21-24J
Interstate Chronometer, 23J
Lafayette, 24J
A. Lincoln, 21J
Paillard W. Co., 17-24J
Trainsmen, 23J
Pennsylvania Special 17-26J
The Railroader & Railroad King.
16 Size: Benjamin Franklin, 17-25J
Bunn, 17-19J
Bunn Special, 21-23J
Burlington, 19J, DR
Diamond Ruby Sapphire, 21 & 23J
Interstate Chronometer, 23J
Lafayette, 23J
A. Lincoln, 21J
Paillard Non-Magnetic W. Co., 17 & 21J
Pennsylvania Special, 17, 21, & 23J
Sante Fe Special, 21J
Sangamo, 21-26J
Sangamo Special, 19-23J
Grades 161, 161A, 163, 163A 23J
Grades 187, and 189, 17J.


15 & 17J with a patented regulator, 18S


All 21 or more jewels, 16-18S, and wind indicators
18 Size: Grades 900, 905, 910, 912, 918, 945, 200, 205;
16 Size: Winnebago, 17-21J, 505, 515, 525, 535, 545, 555.


18 Size: Maiden Lane, 21-28J
Henry Molineux, 20J
260 Model


18 Size: Studebaker 329, Grade Nos. 323, and 327, 21J 18S;
16 Size: Studebaker 229, Grade Nos. 223, 227, 293, 295, 299, 21J;
Polaris, 21J


18 Size: United States, 17-19J, gold train


18 Size: The President, 17-21J, double roller.

WALTHAM (American Waltham Watch Co.)

18 Size: 1857 KW with Pennsylvania R.R. on dial, Appleton Tracy & Co. on movement.
Crescent Street, 17-23J, 1883 & 1892 Models
Appleton Tracy & Co., 1892 Model
Railroader, 1892 Model
Pennsylvania Railroad
Special Railroad, Special RR King, Vanguard, 17-23J, 1892 Model
Grade 845, 18S
16 Size: American Watch Co., 17-21J, 1872 Models
American Watch Co., 17-23J, Bridge Models,
Crescent Street, 17-21J, 1899 & 1908 Models
Premier Maximus
Riverside Maximus, 21-23J
Vanguard, 19-23J
645, 16S
All wind indicators

Links to other sites for additional information:

Pocket Watch Database: - Serial number lookup and information for Hamilton, South Bend, Illinois, Rockford, Waltham & Elgin.


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Pacific Time Illustrations: 1) Conductor and Engineer compare time circa 1930, U.S. Library of Congress collection, 2) Ball Official Railroad Standard 16-size watch manufactured circa 1920 by Waltham, 3) Waltham 1623 Vanguard, mfg. circa 1948, 4) Ball Official Railroad Standard wrist watch introduced in 1959. Part of the material used for research courtesy of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Library and Research Center.
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