The American Watch History

Starting around 1850, the Americans pioneered the use of automated machines to mass produced high quality watches with interchangeable parts. This became known as the “American System of Manufacturing.” By the 1860s-1870s the American watch companies had proved that this system could make watches that were every bit as good as all but the best watches that were made by hand. They were also able to make watches that were cheaper than all but the cheapest hand made watches.

By the mid 1870s, the Swiss noticed a significant drop off in sales to the American market. To find out why, they sent a representative to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There, the Swiss saw Waltham’s automated screw making machine and were shocked by what it could do. A spool of wire was fed into one end of the completely automated machine, and a steady stream of perfectly formed screws the size of pin heads were delivered out the other end. Similar quality watch screws simply could not be made by the hand controlled machines the Swiss used.

It wasn’t just screw making that the American’s had perfected. Almost every part of a watch had a specially designed machine that could make parts faster, more accurately and with less labor than anything the Swiss or English could do.

By the early 1880s, the Swiss and English were pretty much run out of the American market. The English just kind of folded up shop and stuck to the high end ship chronometers needed by the many ships of the huge British Empire. They also made over priced junk that could only be sold at home. The English reacted to both the growing Swiss and American watch industries by lobbying the parliament for higher tariffs and restricting imports. The Swiss, on the other hand, reacted by adapting to the new market.

Before the 1880s, the Swiss watch industry was made up of cottages in little villages where only a few parts of a watch movement or watch case were made. Those parts would then be assembled in other small shops. Each watch had to be hand tweaked to account for the differences between the parts. A difference in one part would often require that the other parts that it touched to have to be adapted.

After seeing the American System of Manufacturing, the Swiss reorganized into centralized factories, with a fair amount of automation. These factories were very small compared to American companies and they still weren’t as automated. They did, however, make enough improvements that they could make knock offs of American watches (“Swiss Fakes”) and also to keep from losing the rest of the world’s markets.

One drawback to the American System of Manufacturing is that each part required a machine to make it, so complicated watches such as minute repeaters, chronographs and very high end watches were not practical to make. Sometimes American companies would “cheat” and simply make these watches with semi-automated means similar to the Swiss, but the quantity was limited and by the 1890s, most American watch companies had stopped making them. The American watches were very high quality, but also very simple.

While the American companies had dabbled in foreign markets in the 1870’s and 1880’s, for the most part, they were quite happy to limit themselves to the US and Canadian markets. Americans, in general, were quite isolationist, and Elgin and Waltham were generally selling everything their factories could produce.

By around 1900, the Swiss technology had pretty much caught up with the Americans. One big difference was that the Swiss had many companies involved in the making of a watch. There were a bunch of companies that would make “movements in the gray” (ebauche), and these movements would be sold to other companies that would finish them off and sell them. Other companies would specialize in things like chronograph attachments, watch dials, mainsprings or tools. With so many Swiss companies each doing only a part of the manufacture, as a whole, the Swiss were able to produce everything from very cheap watches, to watches of the highest quality.

The American market, in contrast, was effectively a duopoly of Waltham and Elgin, with several smaller companies trying to survive in niche markets. All of these companies produced everything but the watch case. A factory that builds everything has certain advantages, such as it is easier to coordinate, but having one factory that did everything from making jewels, to making dials, to sales and promotion also had draw backs. If a Swiss company was having problems with the quality or quantity of, say, the dials, they would change suppliers. If an American company couldn’t make dials, they were stuck. A new Swiss company could enter the market fairly easily, but the American “watch trust” made distributors and Jewelers leery of accepting a new brand of watch and risk loosing their supply of Elgins and Walthams.

The Swiss were early adopters of the wrist watch, and after WWI, they made significant inroads into the US market. Of the American watch companies, only Elgin, Hamilton and the company was to become Timex really successfully made the switch to wrist watches. Waltham held on, but due to poor management, they failed to invest in the newer equipment that was needed to make the smaller watches. The dozen or so other American watch companies either merged, were bought out and moved to other countries or shut down.

After the market crash of 1929, watches became a luxury that most people could put off buying. All the watch companies suffered, but those that hadn’t switched to wrist watch production couldn’t recover. During the 1930s, watch companies all over the world just kind of hung on.

During WWII, the American watch companies sunk a great deal of their remaining capital into converting to war production. Bomb “fuses” (timers), specialized navigation timers, and ship chronographs were all new designs which required new equipment. The Swiss, being “neutral”, were allowed back into the American market in a big way and when the war ended, the American watch companies were in a world of hurt. They had lost a large chunk of their home market, they had no foreign markets, and they needed time to retool back to watch production. The American public, on the other hand, was flush with money that they couldn’t spend while the war was on, and the Swiss were all too willing to supply them with watches.

By the 1950s, the Swiss had perfected machine made complicated wrist watches such as chronographs, automatic winding watches, and day-date watches. The Americans had never produced these kinds of watches (in any real numbers), they weren’t making much money and they had exhausted their reserves. None of them were able to make the transition from simple watches to the complicated ones that were in demand in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Like the English, the American watch companies reacted to the growing Swiss market share by lobbying congress for higher tariffs and restricting imports. They also tried to get more military contracts, but even the Korean war didn’t help much. I have a wonderful article from Elgin whining to congress about how there “needs to be a parity of price at the borders” and “We need a tariff on Swiss watches and a subsidized export market.” And to think, Elgin was in much better shape than most.

The only American watch company that survived was Timex, which made cheap, “disposable” watches. While they were looked down on by the elite watch makers, they were at least turning a profit. By making the watches “disposable”, Timex was able to do things like completely seal the watch case. This meant that it couldn’t be opened to be repaired, but it also wouldn’t let dust in. The Timex also lacked any jewels, which meant that it would wear out after a while, but it was also more rugged that way. A sharp knock would often break the jewels in an expensive watch, but a Timex could “Take a Licking, And Keep On Ticking!”

The other American company of note was Bulova, which up until the 1950s had imported their movements from Switzerland. In the 1960s, they created the revolutionary electronic “Accutron” watch. This watch used a tuning fork to keep time instead of a rotating balance wheel, and the result was an incredibly accurate watch. The Accutron became the high end watch from the early 1960s until the early 1970s when the quartz watch took over.

In the 1970s, the Swiss took another shock when the Japanese perfected the quartz watch, but like the shock from the “American System of Manufacturing”, they adapted and recovered.

Today, you can still buy watches with the great American names of Waltham, Elgin, and Hamilton, but none of these watches are made in the USA. Many watch companies license these names, and little attention is paid to their quality. They probably aren’t any worse than many other brand names that you can pick up at Target or Wallmart, but they have nothing to do with their once great past.

And here is some of the American watch company

American Waltham Watch Company

 

Waltham was the first American Watch Co. They are the pioneered almost in all of the early developments in watches and watch making in the United States. Elgin was an early spin off from Waltham and eventually overtook Waltham in total production. For essentially all the period of 19th Century American Watchmaking, Waltham and Elgin had cooperative agreements intended to prevent other companies from competing with them. The first of these covered the patent center pinion. Later cooperative arrangements included stem winding and pendant setting arrangements.

In 1850 at Roxbury in Massachusetts, David Davis, Edward Howard and Aaron Lufkin Dennison formed together the company that would later become the Waltham Watch Company. The business plan was to manufacture the movement parts so precisely that they would become fully interchangeable. Based upon the experience of earlier failed trials, Howard and Dennison would eventually perfect and patent their precision watch making machines and create the American System of Watch Manufacturing.

Their vision was to form a watch company that could produce high-quality watches at a lower cost using interchangeable parts. With financial backing from Samuel Curtis, the first watches were made in 1850, but problems were encountered. They were exploring new ideas in watch manufacturing, such as using jewels, making dials, and producing plates with a high-level of finish which required extensive tooling and resulted in great financial burden on the company. They also found that even though they were using interchangeable parts, each watch was still unique and had its own set of errors to be corrected. It took months to adjust the watches to the point where they were any better than other widely available timepieces.

The 1883 model full plate watch was followed by Waltham’s 1892 model, which was the last of the Waltham 18 size designs. Although a larger watch, it incorporated many of the design elements of the earlier 16 size watches. Waltham also continued to develop the successful 16 size lines with the innovative 1888 model and their very successful 1899/1908 model.

Also commonly referred to as the “Waltham Watch Company,” the American Waltham Watch Company was the first watch company to mass produce watches in America and is generally considered to be the most important American watch company.

The name was changed to “Boston Watch Company” in 1853.  In 1854 a factory was built in Waltham Mass.  The watches that were made were named “Dennison, Howard, & Davis” as earlier stated, as well as “P.S.Batrlett”,  and “C.T. Parker”.  Boston Watch Company failed in 1857.

The company was sold at auction to Appleton Tracy & Co in May 1857.  In January 1859 the Waltham Improvement Company and Appleton, Tracy & Company merged to the American Waltham Watch Company.  By 1860 the country was in Civil War, and the company was in trouble again.  Production ground to a halt.  With a war going on, finding a market for their watches was becoming a seroius problem.  The company decided to downsize to the lowest possible level to keep the factory open.  It worked!

 

In 100 years of existence the factory produced 40 million jeweled watches, plus clocks, speedometers, compasses, time fuses for bombs and other precision instruments.

Waltham Watch company went out of business in the late 1950”s-early 1960’s,  in 1957 they planned to merge into Waltham Precision Instrument Company which was completed March 1960.  The shareholders of the old company received shares of  the Waltham Precision Instrument Company and also received shares in a Waltham Watch Company.    In the mid 60’s the remaining assets were purchased by the Dextra Corporation which failed in 1983.

 

Waltham  S/N by through the yrears.

1852 – 50 1874 – 730,000 1896 – 7,450,000 1918 – 21,800,000 1940 – 30,250,000
1853 – 400 1875 – 810,000 1897 – 8,100,000 1919 – 22,500,000 1941 – 30,750,000
1854 – 1,000 1876 – 910,000 1898 – 8,400,000 1920 – 23,400,000 1942 – 31,050,000
1855 – 2,500 1877 – 1,000,000 1899 – 9,000,000 1921 – 23,900,000 1943 – 31,700,000
1856 – 4,000 1878 – 1,150,000 1900 – 9,500,000 1922 – 24,100,000 1944 – 32,100,000
1857 – 6,000 1879 – 1,350,000 1901 – 10,200,000 1923 – 24,300,000 1945 – 32,100,000
1858 – 10,000 1880 – 1,500,000 1902 – 11,100,000 1924 – 24,550,000 1946 – 32,350,000
1859 – 15,000 1881 – 1,670,000 1903 – 12,100,000 1925 – 24,800,000 1947 – 32,750,000
1860 – 20,000 1882 – 1,835,000 1904 – 13,500,000 1926 – 25,200,000 1948 – 33,100,000
1861 – 30,000 1883 – 2,000,000 1905 – 14,300,000 1927 – 26,100,000 1949 – 33,500,000
1862 – 45,000 1884 – 2,350,000 1906 – 14,700,000 1928 – 26,400,000 1950 – 33,560,000
1863 – 65,000 1885 – 2,650,000 1907 – 15,500,000 1929 – 26,900,000 1951 – 33,600,000
1864 – 110,000 1886 – 3,000,000 1908 – 16,400,000 1930 – 27,100,000 1952 – 33,700,000
1865 – 180,000 1887 – 3,400,000 1909 – 17,600,000 1931 – 27,300,000 1953 – 33,800,000
1866 – 260,000 1888 – 3,800,000 1910 – 17,900,000 1932 – 27,550,000 1954 – 34,100,000
1867 – 330,000 1889 – 4,200,000 1911 – 18,100,000 1933 – 27,750,000 1955 – 34,450,000
1868 – 410,000 1890 – 4,700,000 1912 – 18,200,000 1934 – 28,100,000 1956 – 34,700,000
1869 – 460,000 1891 – 5,200,000 1913 – 18,900,000 1935 – 28,600,000 1957 – 35,000,000
1870 – 500,000 1892 – 5,800,000 1914 – 19,500,000 1936 – 29,100,000  
1871 – 540,000 1893 – 6,300,000 1915 – 20,000,000 1937 – 29,400,000  
1872 – 590,000 1894 – 6,700,000 1916 – 20,500,000 1938 – 29,750,000  
1873 – 680,000 1895 – 7,100,000 1917 – 20,900,000 1939 – 30,050,00  

 

 

Ansonia Clock Company

Ansonia, Connecticut

 

1844 – The Ansonia Brass Company is formed by Anson Green Phelps who became one of the great mercantile capitalists of his time.

Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley is rich in clock history, containing such places (with the older name in brackets) as: Winsted (Winchester), Torrington (Wolcottville), Thomaston (Plymouth Hollow), Waterbury (Mattituck), Naugatuck (Salem Bridge), and Ansonia on the east bank nine miles north west of New Haven. The falls in the river provided an excellent source of water power causing industry to locate here.

Anson Green Phelps was born to an old Connecticut family, he was orphaned at age ten, and soon after became a saddlemaker’s apprentice. He later moved to Hartford and went into business for himself as a merchant and a shrewd trader. He bartered saddles for cotton from South Carolina and then sold the cotton in New York. With the proceeds from the cotton sales he purchased dry goods to sell back in his Hartford store.

Anson Green Phelps moved to New York at age 31 to joined forces with another Connecticut trader, Elisha Peck. As the firm of Phelps & Peck they exported Southern cotton to England and imported metals to New York in return, becoming New York’s largest metal importer of the time.

After his partnership with Peck dissolved, he formed the firm of Phelps, Dodge & Co. with two of his son-in-laws. Phelps, Dodge and Co. remained a leading New York metals importer. Located in southeastern Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley on the east bank of the river, nine miles from New Haven, the factory produced rolled brass for industrial uses. The city of Ansonia was originally part of a larger area called Derby. When the city was incorporated in 1889 it was named Ansonia in honor of Anson Phelps.

1850 – The Ansonia Clock Company is formed as a subsidiary of the Ansonia Brass Company by Phelps and two Bristol, Connecticut clockmakers, Theodore Terry and Franklin C. Andrews.

The above resolution and sale on November 16, 1854 ended the original Ansonia Clock Company and for the 15 years following the fire, the history of clock manufacture at Ansonia is more difficult to follow. The parent firm of Phelps, Dodge & Co. manufactured a few cased clocks, but largely made movements to sell to other firms. Very few Ansonia Clocks from this era are seen today and those that are usually have the “Ansonia Brass Company” label.  A few clocks were also labeled “Ansonia Brass & Battery Company” during this period.

 

The business was reorganized on February 11, 1869 and clocks made during this time were labeled “Ansonia Brass & Copper Company”.  Then on December 21, 1877, a joint stock corporation was formed at New York City adopting the original name, “Ansonia Clock Company”.

In April of 1879, the operation was moved to a new facility at Brooklyn, New York.  However the factory at Ansonia was not completely shut down until around 1883. Tragically on October 27, 1880 fire once again claimed the Ansonia Clock company.  A new factory was built on the same site, and by 1883 the entire manufacturing operation was centered in Brooklyn.  The company had sales offices in New York, Chicago and London. By 1914 they were offering almost 450 different clocks; they are most noted for their iron-cased clocks.

In 1877 the clock company purchased a factory in New York, and moved most of its production there. Henry J. Davies of Brooklyn, himself a clockmaker, inventor and case designer, joins the newly reconstituted company as one of its founders. As President, he is thought to be largely responsible for the figurine clocks, swing clocks and other unusual and desirable novelties for which the Ansonia firm became known.

In 1879 the factory was moved to the present location, but it burned down the following year (note that the article refers to the neighborhood as South Brooklyn, its previous moniker). A far larger, 300,000 square foot factory complex was rebuilt on the site in 1880, and throughout the decade Ansonia employed 1,500 workers and could churn out 10,000 clocks and watches a day.

In 1904 the company had attempted to jump on “the dollar watch” bandwagon, perhaps as an ineffectual guard against the first hints of potential financial difficulties, (Ansonia clocks were not cheap.) The idea behind the dollar watch was to make it in the same manner as a cheap clock. This concept bore little resemblance to the traditional, intricate style that went into the handcrafted watch. It did not pan out. Instead, designers turned to the tourbilion watch, concocted by the French genius, Breguet. Watches are difficult timekeepers due to the unstable positions they are likely to fall into. Breguet’s watch had a turning escapement which minimized these errors in accuracy. American designers went one step further, allowing the entire movement to rotate inside the case. The Ansonia Company produced a similar non-jeweled model. They sold millions of these inexpensive watches in the two and a half decades before they went out of business; an interesting comparison to the scrolled elaborate clockwork the Ansonia collector is familiar with.

Unfortunately these high times were not to last.  By 1920 they were offering only 136 clocks and 9 watches and by 1927 they only offered 47 clocks and 3 watches.  In July of 1929 the factory was sold to the Russian purchasing agent and the entire operation was moved to Moscow in the summer of 1930. The Ansonia trademark has been used in the last few decades by a Lynwood, Washington sales operation on imported clocks.

The Ansonia Company was best known for its decorative imitation gold, and ornate novelty clocks. Petulant cupids and angels, deep thinkers, athletes, babies, and languid ladles drape and adorn the ornamental designs, that characterize the name and products of Ansonia.

The factory complex was home to light industry and sweatshops until the 1970s, and in 1982 work began to convert the buildings into loft apartments. Today the old factory is a 71-unit co-op.

 

Ball The Railroad watch

Webb C. Ball was born in Fredericktown, Ohio on October 6, 1847, later on start as jewelry retailer and became a jeweler & watchmaker. When Standard Time was first adopted in 1883, he was the first jeweler to use time signals, bringing accurate time to Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1891, After the infamous the mail train collision between Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railways at Kipton, Ohio, which occurred because an engineer’s watch had stopped unnoticed for about 5 minutes,, the commissioner of railroads appointed Webb C. Ball to develop and set strict accuracy standards for railroad watches and clocks. The Ball Watch Company of Cleveland Ohio was formed. Interestingly it never manufactured watches or clocks. Webb C. Ball strongly enforced the strict standards and allowed those watches and clocks that met or exceeded the strict standard to be signed with his name. By the early 1900’s Webb C Ball of Cleveland Ohio, was the general time keeper for over 125,000 miles of track in the U.S., Mexico and Canada

In 1893, seizing the opportunity, Ball contracted with watch companies such as E.Howard, Waltham, Elgin, Hamilton, Hampden and others, to provide him with watch movements that met his strict standards. He then inserted these movements into high quality cases that bore the name of the Ball Watch Company on the outside. By 1908, the Ball Watch company was furnishing high grade pocket watches to over 100 different railroad systems.

In 1900, Webb Ball established railroad watch standards and conducted time inspections for over 54 railroad companies. He approved 37 different watches for railroad use.

In 1902, The Vanderbilt railroad system that developed and operated the fastest long-distance train service in the world kept its trains running “on the Ball.”

In 1913, Ball introduced the twentieth century model case with his patented “safety bow,” a feature that would last for over 40 years and made Ball’s watches some of the most recognizable in the railroad watch industry.

In1921, His efforts were honored by the Horological Institute of America in Washington.

1922: Webb C. Ball died at the age of 75.

By 1990s, Ball Watch changed owners, but remained loyal to its philosophy. Determination and the love of a challenge, precision, strength, performance and humility are all human traits that defined the early pioneers of rail transport and which today still reflect the values of Ball Watch.

Watches and clocks were signed “Webb C. Ball Company”, “Ball Watch Co., Cleveland” sometimes with “Official Railroad Standard” or “Ball Standard Dial, Pat. Applied. For”. Ball watches and clocks were considered the finest watches by rail men at the beginning of and well into this century. They are becoming increasing difficult to find, particularly clocks with this signature.

Today, Ball Watch has maintained a significant presence in the watch landscape, through superbly designed mechanical watches, with unique styling to match their historical roots.

Benrus Watch Company

The company founded in New York City in 1921 by three brothers – Oscar, Benjamin, and.  The  brothers were Romanian immigrants.  The name “BENRUS” was a combination of Benjamin Lazrus first and last names.  Hence “BEN”jamin laz”RUS”

The original company headquarters were located in the Hippodrome building on 44th street in Manhattan.  While some watch assembly took place there, the bulk of the manufacture took place in Switzerland.

Benrus also had a factory in Waterbury CT which is where they made the cases for Benrus watches.  The company would later own factories in France, St. Thomas, and Virgin Islands in the late 50’s early 60’s.

In 1923, Lazarus acquired the legal protection of the trademark Benrus from the Swiss federal office for intellectual property.

Benrus, like many other watch manufacturers of the time, manufactured watches for WWII servicemen.   Most US companies (including watch companies) were brought into the war effort to produce items for military use.  Benrus was no different.  Indeed, Benrus was manufacturing items toward the War effort.

In 1940’s.  Post-War, Benrus designers went to work fashioning beautiful and dazzling watches that expressed post war civilian life. The company produced memorable watches like the “Embraceable” – a one piece watch that was slipped on like a bracelet, and also the “Citation” which was named after a famous racehorse of the time.  The “Dial-o-Rama” which is probably the most recognized of all of the jump hour direct read watch which is highly collectible today.

In 1950s, Benrus’ had overtaken Hamilton and had grown to become the 3rd largest watch company in the United States, behind Bulova and Elgin (who each were larger than Benrus and Hamilton combined).  They were a mid-priced watch company and that relied solely on using swiss movements.

In 1952 a proposal by the U S Tarriff Commission had recommended an increase import duties on swiss watch movements.    This would prove to be quite damaging to Benrus who relied solely on swiss made movements.

Benrus held patents for an automobile clock that they were eager to market but did not have the manufacturing capabilities in the US to capitalize upon.  Benrus, with it’s influential block of Hamilton stock approached Hamilton and suggested a mutually beneficial deal be arranged.

1950’s Ben and Ralph Lazrus were in their 70’s and ready for retirement.  Oscar bought out his brothers shares to become the sole owner of the company.  Ralph died shortly thereafter in 1960.

In 1967, the company was sold to Victor Kiam, of Remington Razors

In the 1960’s through the late 70’s, Benrus made military issue watches used by the Army and Navy.  These were issued to servicemen fighting in the Vietnam War.

By late 70’s an attempt to consolidate all the various manufacturing enterprises under one roof Benrus Incorporated was a diversified manufacturer of a number of consumer products.   Companies included:   Benrus Watch Co. –  Watches, Wells, Inc. –  Jewelry, and Destino, Ltd. – Christian Dior Products which proved to be a much more expensive move than anyone calculated, and a final blow to the company which subsequently filed bankrupt in 1977.

The company was then sold, and after passing through several more hands, came under the ownership of the Hampden Company, which also owned “Fantasy Diamonds”, with factories in both the Virgin Islands and Chicago.  An attempt was made to bring back the Benrus brand under Hampden/Fantasy, which was somewhat successful but short lived.

Oscar Lazrus died in the early 1990’s (he was in his 90’s).  His son Julian Lazrus died Aug. 14, 2004 at the age of 85.