Making the (Railroad) Grade:

The 19 Jewel Elgin “B.W. Raymond”
ca. 1920

Part 2 of 2

by Edward C. Hahn


The Bottom Plate, Jeweling, and Keyless Works

Once the dial has been removed, the bottom plate is revealed for inspection. Visible are a trochoidal-shaped dial washer (A, installed upside down during the last servicing), the well-constructed flush minute wheel retaining plate (B), and the pressed-in jewels for the wheel train (C).   Also visible are the screwed in cap jewel chatons for the escape lever (D) and balance wheel (not labeled).

This is a closeup of the area around D in the previous photo. The items visible from top to bottom are the balance wheel cap jewel in its chaton, a pair of adjustments for the banking pins (look like screw heads), the escape lever cap jewel, and finally a pair of inspection/oiling holes for the escapement. To fully clean the watch, the cap jewels needed to be removed from bottom plate to get rid of the dried oil residue, which means that the cap jewels were removed and replaced with every cleaning. As is visible in the scan, there are quite a few scratches around both holes, and the screw heads themselves are chewed up a bit, indicating a less-than-acceptable servicing job in the past.  The bottom plate is also gouged near the left banking pin “screw head”, to the point where the nickel plating has been flaked off showing the brass underneath.

At first, a 15 jewel movement was deemed high enough quality for railroad service. However, as time went on, the jewel count was gradually increased until 21 and 23 jewel movements were required (recall again that many “obsolete” watches were grandfathered as long as they could keep performing at the time standard of less than 30 seconds error per week.) This example has 19 jewels. They are as follows:


The 19 Jewels of the BW Raymond

1&2 Balance wheel pivot jewels
3&4 Balance wheel cap jewels
5 Impulse Jewel
6&7 Escape Lever pivot jewels
8&9 Escape Lever cap jewels
10&11 Escape Lever pallets
12&13 Escape wheel pivot jewels
14&15 Fourth wheel pivot jewels
16&17 Third wheel pivot jewels
18&19 Second (Center) wheel pivot jewels

One of the characteristics which was specified for railroad watches after 1906 was the use of a lever to switch between winding and setting positions, rather than the now-common pull-out stem. This was adopted to prevent the inadvertent shifting of the time displayed on the watch, as the switch could only be accessed with the bezel off the watch. Note that the location of the lever varied with the movement design, but 1 o’clock was typical for later 16-size open-face movements.

When a train was dispatched, each brakeman, fireman, conductor or engineer’s watch would be compared to the time on a Standard Time Clock at one of the main company stations if available. Rather than reset the time for each trip, a card with the discrepancy was kept, and the employee was obliged to check and mark down the result of the comparison daily; the watch and cards were then inspected regularly by designated inspectors (e.g. twice a month for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.) Many railroads went as far as to prohibit the employee from setting the time on the watch themselves, relying on the inspector to do the setting!

According to some anecdotes (possibly apocryphal), for each run, the railroad dispatcher would verify that the time was set properly, and would then seal the bezel with wax to prevent possible tampering.

The above scans shows the operation of the lever; it is similar to the operation of a pull-out stem, but is simpler in many ways. When the lever is pulled out at (A), the keyless works cover pivots around (B). This causes the clutch lever (C) to rotate counterclockwise, which moves the clutch in direction (D). There is no need for a pull-out piece. Notice that Elgin provided nicely shaped stamped return springs at (E) & (F), rather than a simple wire spring often found on other pocket watches and in modern wristwatches.

This second scan shows what the assembly looks like when the motion is complete:  notice the movement of the clutch from the winding pinion (A) to the intermediate wheel (B).

This photo shows the keyless works area with all of the parts removed. Notice the nice milling work done on the plate, as well as the grease at the points of friction. Highlighted with the arrow is the extended center wheel pinion riding in a screwed bottom center jewel chaton – the only regular jewel to be held in a chaton on the bottom plate.

I had originally guessed that this was an example of mix-and-match engineering, where Elgin would use a jewel here on high-grade movements, and perhaps would use a replaceable bushing for regular movements; however, Wayne Schlitt informed me that this basic ebauche was never used for a watch with fewer than 17 jewels. Perhaps this has become a design feature whose purpose has been lost in time…


The Regulator, Balance Wheel, and Escapement

The photo to the left shows the regulator of this movement as seen from the top of the balance cock, while the photo on the right shows the underside of the balance cock. All railroad grade watches were required to have some means of micrometric regulation, and while the standard Swan’s Neck was most typically seen, many different “patent” regulators made their way into watch design in the late 1800s and beyond. In the BW Raymond, Elgin installed one such unusual design: the index for the regulator is carried in a “spool” (A). This spool is threaded like a worm gear, and can be moved back and forth along the pinion as marked at (B). Spring tensioning to keep the regulator from moving is provided by a pin and spring at (C), which can be seen in the underside view. Note the lack of shock protection that was typical at the balance cap jewel  (D), as well as the fact that the serial number was stamped into the bottom of the balance cock. These numbers are found at several other places on the movement, as will be seen later.



This is the top side of the balance wheel; note the railroad standard blued-steel overcoil hairspring (blue arrow) and the cuts in the rim of the temperature-compensating bi-metallic balance. Since this was before the widespread adoption of the so-called “self compensating” Elinvar or Nivarox hairsprings, adjusting for temperature was a serious, time consuming task. The problem is that at warm temperatures, the stiffness of a steel spring will decrease. As this would cause the overall period of oscillation to slow significantly, some means of compensation for the hairspring was necessary. The solution that was adopted widely was use of a bi-metallic balance, that would reduce the moment of inertia of the balance wheel to keep the overall period of oscillation the same. For more on this principle, I suggest reading Walt Odets’Horologium article on balances.

In addition to having the movement serial number inscribed on the arms and a lack of fine polish as seen on the top of the balance, the bottom side of the balance wheel (left) shows the railroad standard “double roller”, which works in conjunction with the escape lever (right). This design, which has been incorporated into most (if not all) modern mechanical watches, provides for unlocking the escape lever and receiving an impulse at the “neutral” point during the balance’s motion, while at the same time preventing the escape lever from moving when the balance is not at the neutral point. This is achieved by action at two levels or planes on the balance.

The first level (A) contains the impulse jewel (highlighted square) and provides room for the escape lever fork, while a safety roller on the second level (B) contains a notch for the guide pin which is only open when the balance is at the zero point. The corresponding hardware is shown on the right: the escape lever fork (A) and the safety guide pin (B) are labeled consistently with the balance wheel scan. If the pallet lever were jarred while the balance was not at the neutral point, the guide pin (B) would bump up against the safety roller, thus preventing the lever from moving. Note again that the balance is shown inverted in this scan, while the escape lever is in the normal orientation.

These two parts also show a particularly American idiom for impulse and pallet jewels – they are clear rather than red. The pallet jewels (C) in particular were advertised as “sapphire pallets” – even though they are the same as rubies, sans the chemicals responsible for color. In other words, they have no functional advantage over red pallet jewels.

The escape lever shows an unusual structure (D), sometimes called a “mustache”. Some posts on the Vintage Forum have turned up that fact that this structure was used to balance or “poise” the escape lever in early watches, for better positional performance. However, they were largely obsolete by the time this watch was produced, and modern thought is that the escape lever should be made as light as possible. Of course, modern escape levers are much smaller than the one in the BW Raymond, and thus are much less affected by gravity. As an interesting side note, a revival of the mustache can be seen on the modern Roger Cornet exposed escapement watches – which also use an unusually large escape lever.

This is a scan of the escape lever and escape wheel installed in the movement; note that the mustache arms are normally never in contact with the escape wheel. It is not clear why Elgin continued to use the mustache on their escape levers, as their use had gone out of favor by the 1920s – another mystery perhaps lost to time? In any case, one side effect is that, during assembly, the arms of the mustache help keep the escape wheel from falling out of the bottom pivot.


The Barrel Bridge and Wheel Train

The underside of the barrel bridge shows wear (left, marked A), and also shows the relatively coarse finishing found on the mating surface of the barrel (B). The pattern of wear indicates that this watch has a misalignment of the upper and lower barrel pivot holes, as the wear is mostly on one side. This could be a manufacturing error, or may indicate that one of the barrel pivots has worn away at the pivot holes such that it started leaning over. This would not be acceptable condition for a bridge, as the rubbing would interrupt the amount of power available for transmission to the wheel train, perhaps even intermittently if the contact were uneven.

It is also curious that the mating surface of the plates would be left so rough – this could also cause misalignment between pivots and some attendant performance issues. Note that the balance cock from the previous section, while not as bad as the barrel bridge, certainly could be finished much better – at least as well as the visible parts of the bridges and plates: the finish on the visible part of the barrel bridge, including the click spring, is particularly outstanding (right)…

I find these inconsistencies of finishing to be somewhat anomalous among railroad watches – certainly the Hamilton and Illinois watches that I’ve inspected show more consistent finishing than this. Perhaps this shows why Elgin was never considered to be at the top of the quality list.

This scan (left) shows the entire wheel train with all of the bridges and plates removed. It may not be obvious, but the wheels are made of three different materials: a gold center wheel (A), brass for the barrel (B) and the remaining train, and steel for the escape wheel and lever (C).  Note also the cap jewel nicely integrated into the end of the escape lever cock (D).

While it was certainly not a requirement, the top-quality watches made for the railroad industry usually contained either a gold center wheel or a gold train. These were made from high enough alloy levels (i.e. low carat numbers) so the softness of gold would not be a durability issue, yet still soft enough to ensure a short “break-in”, leading to a lifetime of smooth power transmission.

In contrast, the escape wheel and lever in steel came to be specified by the railroad standard, to prevent deteriorating performance on these critical movement parts.

The barrel in this watch is rather plain (although the top surface of the barrel might have been worn smooth by the contact with the bridge), sometimes the watch companies would put in a sunburst or even a damaskeened finishes on the barrel top and bottom – even though no one except a watchmaker would ever see this! Attention to detail like this was a point of pride with many watch companies, and echoes some of the comments made about the absolute quality of the Patek Phillipe finish today.

Once built, the railroad grade movement was a true work of precision manufacturing. However, in the days of blued steel mainsprings, it was not uncommon for a mainspring to break after some use. The shock of unloading the movement often caused damage to the wheel train and escapement, as several pounds of force would be suddenly released.

A solution adopted to minimize the damage was to include a “safety pinion” on the center wheel (blue arrow in the scan). Rather than have the pinion of the center wheel to be held on tightly by friction, the pinion was actually screwed onto the center wheel arbor, using threads that were “backwards” to the regular direction of movement. The theory is that, if the mainspring broke and a spike of force was transmitted in the wrong direction through the movement, the safety pinion would unscrew itself to absorb the energy released.

Modern wristwatch movements, using a nickel-steel alloy as mainsprings, are much less susceptible to breakage, and in addition, the mainspring forces are much smaller. This has eliminated the need for safety pinions for current production movements.


The End of an Era

At its core, the railroad standard simply set a performance standard for watches: less than 30 seconds error per week. As it evolved, it started to spell out a number of high quality features and high precision adjustments, and took advantage of advancements in watchmaking technologies introduced by the watch companies. These included increasing the number of jewels, steel escape wheels and levers, double rollers, lever setting, and overcoil hairsprings. Other features, like cut-compensation balances and adjustable banking pins were de facto requirements needed to achieve the specified level of performance. Finally the safety pinion, gold gears, Elinvar hairsprings and balances, and other features were added by the watch companies to obtain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The results were watches which were true thoroughbreds in terms of performance and reliability, with prices and in quantities that made them affordable. The fact that companies like Elgin, Illinois, Hamilton, Hampden, Waltham, and a host of others were able to share this market with a truly impressive array of products showed that high quality and mass production were not at all incompatible.

However, the hard economic times of the Depression shrank the market for railroad watches significantly, as the railroad industry’s capacity shrank due to lack of demand. This was further complicated by the fact that these companies watches were suddenly unable to sell large volumes of watches to the masses in the face of cheap competition – from pin-lever “dollar watches” by companies like Ingersoll. Like many industries, design, engineering, and production on the top end were largely subsidized by higher-volume sellers at the low and mid range. Between the dropping of tariffs on Swiss watches in 1936 and the need to support war production for WWII, these companies were squeezed to the point where they were no longer able to compete in the marketplace. Waltham held out longer than most when it ceased production in 1957, followed by Elgin in 1964.  Finally, in 1969 the last railroad pocket watch made in America was built by the Hamilton company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.



My sincerest thanks to Wayne Schlitt, for providing detailed information on the Elgin Company & this particular movement. Kent Singer provided excellent information on Railroad Standard evolution, debunking many of the myths which surrounded the standard. Finally, Cooksey Shugart’s “Complete Price Guide to Watches” should be applauded (or blamed) for getting me hooked on these in the first place.



End of Part Two

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