Monday, January 26, 2015

Family Treasures

In the 19th century, there was no standard time in the United States. Every town set their own solar time that was then maintained by the best clock in town, usually in a bell tower or a clock in the local watchmaker’s window. Obviously this was no way to run a transcontinental railroad. By 1883 U.S. and Canadian roads were operating on a standard time system using the familiar time zones that we still use today. The stubborn independent American spirit did not capitulate to common sense until the Standard Time Act of 1918 became law. We still squabble over daylight savings time.

Having a time standard was not enough if the train crews did not have instruments that could measure time with a high degree of accuracy. The railroad pocket watch was created to prevent accidents that could occur when trains running at different speeds and in different directions were all using the same tracks. These watches were standardized using large easy to read Arabic numerals. These watches are precision scientific instruments. Their accuracy was not equaled by a wristwatch until the introduction of the Bulova Accutron in 1960. After the introduction of this first all electric watch, railroad personnel were allowed to wear an approved wrist watch instead of carrying one in their pocket.

The investigation of one deadly train wreck that killed over 100 people determined that it was caused by a watch that was accidently reset in the conductor’s pocket. This led to the invention of the lever set railroad watch. To set this type of watch, the owner must carefully unscrew the bezel that holds the watch crystal in place. Underneath this metal ring somewhere between the 1:00 position and the 2:00 position there is a small hidden lever. Once this lever is lifted with a fingernail, the time can be set using the stem as in an ordinary watch. After setting the watch, the lever is returned to its retracted position. Then the bezel is carefully (no cross threading please) screwed back down. If a watch of this type was actually used by a railroad, it would have been set by a timekeeper using a master clock. A paper seal was then glued to the side of the watch to make certain that no one tampered with it until it was scheduled to be reset. If the owner of the watch allowed it to wind down and stop, he was fined $5.00, a huge amount of money at that time.

Because a lever set “railroad” pocket watch from a respected manufacturer was the best available product in the marketplace, they were popular with men who did not work on the railroad. This example was made by the Illinois Watch Company in 1923. It has a 19 jewel movement that is almost identical to the famous, highly collectable 21 jewel Bunn Special. The 10K gold filled case is described as “full dress” meaning that it is hand engraved; a process that would be too expensive to produce on a modern watch. The watchmaker who repaired and restored this watch told me that if tested, this watch would still meet modern standards for a chronometer. Although it will never be tested by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) or an equivalent body (such as the Japan Chronometer Inspection Institute), I will accept his opinion as factual.

I found this watch in my mother’s secretary in the general vicinity of some identifiable family memorabilia. There was no documentation identifying what it was or who owned it. When I found it, the watch wasn’t working. I thought it might have some potential value, so I sent it off to my watchmaker friend in Maryland for evaluation. Since then I have learned that my maternal grandfather carried a pocket watch. So far none of my cousins have been able to state with certainty that this is my grandfather’s watch.

Even if one of my relatives can identify the watch, the evidence chain is broken. No one put the watch in my hand and told me its story. That piece of family lore has been lost forever. The moral of this story is pass on family treasures while you are still alive and can remember what you own. Choose a family member who will understand and appreciate that what you giving to them is not a thing but a piece of their own identity. Timing is everything. A young couple might prefer modern stylish furniture from Rooms are Us. They won’t appreciate Aunt Martha’s desk until they are older. By the time they are in their fifties it is likely that they will understand there is a difference between furniture made out of stapled pieces of particle board and furniture made entirely out of real wood that was assembled by craftsmen who cared.

In so many ways we are who we believe we are. The stories, myths, and legends passed down by our family members are internalized and passed on to those who follow us on our journey down the road that never ends.

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