From Railroads to Modern Adverse Affairs (Part 1)

The Rise Of BALL Watch Company

Dated Published
May 14, 2022
Author
Samuel Ng
Category
Insight
SponsoredAcme Inc.

The reputable BALL Watch Co. of today was known primarily for two elements in their watches. First, the consumption of its vaunted micro-gas luminous tubes for perpetual night-reading of time; and second, it encapsulates the afore as part of its undeniable assurance in reliability: advanced engineering. Besides, the American-born jeweler-to-watch-company proudly claimed its enduring motto of those traits, “Since 1891, accuracy under adverse conditions.”

However, little did we know that the now adept manufacturer of robust mechanical watches did not come into existence by chance. Oh, no, no-no. Far from it. The BALL Watch Company espouses more than a century worth of horology credentials. Since day numero uno, the words “precision,” “accuracy,” and “reliability” were the brand’s ethos. The mechanical advances can be seen in every single piece of each time-ticking machine. Whether it is an early sidewalk clock or the modern Fireman collection – they were all designed and manufactured to the utmost stringent criteria and standards of their epochs.

The original BALL store located in Cleveland, Ohio

The origin of the Maison is reputable. It achieved several incredible milestones only to be acknowledged among its cognoscenti. And which personally is quite a sorrowful thing. The main reason behind this is mainly due to the rarely publicized efforts and establishments throughout the years. As a result, BALL has often been seen as an uncelebrated, under-the-radar brand within the watch industry. But, once one has cottoned into its offerings…boy, they knew they had just discovered some true watch gems, boasting nothing but value for money, well-over-the-top genteel timepieces. 

As such, uncovering the story of the BALL watch brand is exceptionally exciting. I’d like to take this chance to dive deep into the history of BALL, the extraordinary beginning of its evolutionary railway pocket watches and clocks, sprouting from the seed of a jewelry store. Next, we’ll look upon how the brand has progressively revolutionized the standards of precision in timepieces, accustomed to the American railroad companies, as well as the continuation of its ebullient roots when it comes to its precision watchmaking today. Finally, in later parts, I’ll touch on the current collections and how they relentlessly reflect the brand’s core principles and practices while adapting to the current industry’s requirements.

An early day pocket watch by BALL

In this article, I will further discuss its advanced and pioneering technologies throughout its halcyon days of the mid-ninetieth and twentieth centuries. Subsequently, I’ll be shedding some light on BALL’s unwavering attitude in providing robust watches not only to the American railroads in the past but several more collaborative efforts accomplished by the brand in recent times. All reveal BALL’s capability of developing peculiar timepieces that cater to the needs or honor of other essential partners and those of its own ambassadors known as the “Explorer Club.” All that favors the brand’s vision, covering several fascinating legacies of BALL’s timekeeping standards. 

Ball’s Explorer Club Ambassador Guillaume Néry, with his Engineer Master II Diver Worldtime

Take heed, as this comprehensive look into BALL might just sweep you off your feet, from those knowledgeable aficionados to those who’re eager to learn. One will realize how meticulously well-executed things were – all based on a singular goal laid down two centuries ago – without any hiatus in functional innovations. Did I also mention that with all the crazy efforts and executions, they’re still a great value that we can perennially enjoy without the fuss? 

The Birth of The American Jeweler

Originally born in Fredericktown, Ohio, on 6 October 1847, Webb Clay Ball, the eldest son of Aaron and Sidney Ann Clay Ball, came into this world, along with his nine other siblings. Who would’ve thought in his lifetime, he would later go on to shake the horology realm for the next few decades come? But before that, he humbly grew up on a farm in Knox County and went to Township School during his youth.

Young Webb Clay Ball (1847-1922)

Upon graduation and entering adulthood, the year was 1869. The young padawan took his first infant step as a jeweler’s/watchmaker’s apprentice in Fredericktown. Speaking of jewelry, Webb started earlier than the three musketeers from Le France that later pushed their father’s Maison Cartier into astronomical heights from 1899. However, it wasn’t easy for the Buckeye. He fervidly started without compensation for his first year of apprenticeship, which unhurriedly improved to a dollar (around $98USD today) a week. 

Surviving through the program while still inchoate, he began his proper career in 1874 at Deuber Watch Case Co. of Cincinnati as a sales representative. From here, things started to take off for the young Clay Ball. As a sales guy, he was required to travel throughout the country, advertising and selling pocket watches, which allowed him to hone his entrepreneurial skills further while picking up more experience.

An advertisement circa the 1880s. Where Webb announced the opening of his small repair shop under his former employers Whitcomb and Metten

During this period, Webb was no more impecunious. He was looking for a location to start off on his own, and the time finally came five years later. In 1879 while in Cleveland, Ohio, Ball stumbled across the opportunity to open his own store. By March, he decided it was time and settled there by purchasing an interest in a firm called Whitcomb & Metten Jewelers at 141 Superior – a place where he previously worked as a clerk. Two years later, the 34-year-old Webb C. Ball purchased George R. Metten’s interest. Together with his existing partner David R. Whitcomb, they established the Whitcomb and Ball Jewelery Store. 

The announcement of Whitcomb and Ball Jewelery Store

Almost a mimicry to the tale of Louis-François Cartier (the trio mentioned above’s grand-daddy) – who founded Cartier by taking over his master’s workshop – Webb had his own fair share. In that same year 1879, he acquired the remaining interest from Whitcomb, inaugurating the nascent Webb C. Ball Company. Like Le Maison Cartier in Rue de la Paix, the American jewelry store is also situated at a prime location – on the corner of Seneca and Superior Streets – the center of the Cleveland business district.

The first-ever Webb C. Ball Company, located at a prime location in Cleveland

Since then, Webb has been recognized and received plaudits not only as a jeweler but more so as a “time expert.” Now one might ask why the latter label was applied to him? Well, simply because Webb poured into his obsession with accurate time. In 1883 when Standard Time was first adopted, along with the service of Naval Observatory in Washington, he was the first Cleveland jeweler to embrace the time signals to purvey accurate time reading to the state. 

Not halting at all, he was credited as the first adopter of a chronometer in town, placing it right on display in his storefront’s window. From the Greek word “Chronos” combined with “meter,” which means measures, the portmanteau “chronometers” were some of the most critical, strictly-monitored timekeeping devices ever made. 

It was a brilliant “marketing” move, whereby for years, a passerby would pull out their pocket watches and synchronize their time with Ball’s window display chronometer. Through this, a unanimous claim by the people of the phrase “BALL’s Time” across Northern Ohio refers to the absolute correct time. In fact, wIth this idée fixe for accuracy, his verve had allowed him to later save the entire railroad industry.

Chef Time Inspector

Before I head on to the last train wreck in American history, which due to lousy timekeeping that marks the golden period of BALL, we ought to acknowledge first that Webb had already dabbled in the railroad industry. While the importance of timekeeping was not fully realized, a consensus was still found among the railroad workers, a need for accurate timekeeping to guide each freight journey in an orderly and timely fashion. 

The first transcontinental railroad in 1869

Unsurprisingly, his jewelry store and other jewelers provided railway workers with reliable pocket watches and timing instruments since the company’s inception and well before the tragic train wreck. His business gradually condescended with several leading railroads centering on Cleveland, allowing the firm to burgeon and earning him the badge as “Chef Time Inspector.” This reflected already the high point in Webb’s career and his company in 1891. By January 1891, six railroads were served by Webb. C Ball company were: 

  1. New York Pacific & Ohio Co.
  2. New York Central & St. Louis Railroad Co.
  3. Cleveland Cincinnati Chicago and St. Louis Railroad Co.
  4. Valley Railroad Co.
  5. Pennsylvania Co.
  6. C.A. & C. Railroad
An advertisement from 3 January 1891, showing six railroads’ pocket watches served by BALL

From his incessant doings until this point, I’d like to clarify the folklore and misconception regarding the upcoming Kipton crash that sparked BALL’s rising reputation. He, in fact, got his game on before that. While yes, I’m shifting to agree that the train disaster had got the world’s attention on Webb and his effort to standardize railroad time standards in specific ways. But evidence had shown before this that he long established his praiseworthy doings to make sure (or attempt to) that all his timing instruments, or those he examined, already were and did. This resulted in the rise of his company and gaining the trust of the railroad industry from the beginning. Though I digress, but not without a point. 

Ohio’s Kipton Train Wreck

Although timing instruments were provided to railroad personnel, these were somehow taken for granted most of the time. As a result, timekeeping was primarily a hit-or-miss situation. Most of the time, people depended on mediocre aids like school bells and factory whistles, worst of them all, lousy accuracy from their own pocket watches. A lack of discipline and abuse of the regulated and standardized system was all prevalent.

The Kipton Train Wreck on April 1891

Ultimately, all the remiss attitudes escalated to an ineluctable fatal accident on 18 April 1891, known as the Great Kipton wreck. The New York Fast Mail No. 14, a mail train, collided head-on with another known as “ACCOMMODATION” No. 21, which pulled three five-passenger cars (cabins) at that time, at Kipton, a small station west of Oberlin, the University town. One apocryphal explanation derived that this was due to a conductor forgetting to retrieve his pocket watch. It was then exacerbated when another fellow engineer’s watch stopped working for four minutes before running again. Some argued that the conductor’s lack of diligence on board the mail train resulted in the incident.

Things escalated quickly into a disaster that killed both trains’ engineers, a fireman, several passengers, a messenger, and worst, several onlookers were injured as well. As a result, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Company (a Vanderbilt line) consulted Webb, the “time expert,” to investigate not only the crash but the entire “Time and Watch” conditions throughout the Lake Shore Line. They’d known they got the right man for the task.

The aftermath of the wreck

Following a four-month investigation, Webb reported and emphasized the underlying discipline and inferior methods of monitoring time. Timekeeping was not standardized properly, resulting in each railroad establishing its own “official railroad time” – more than 70 “official” times. So what on earth could be done when lives were on the line and timekeeping was the most crucial aspect for locomotives?

An “instructions to Watch Examiners” circa 1888, three full years before the fatal train wreck

Since procedures hadn’t been put in place, the appointed Chief Time Inspector went further in formulating a system that provided safer timekeeping in railroad transportation once and for all. This system included a ket set of requirements, instructions, and a reporting administration on both hiring and training the inspectors. On top of all that, they prepared to inspect approximately 2300 watches that needed to be replaced and equipped. Clearly, he was determined on this, as he ordered: “No employee will be permitted to go on duty until their watch fulfills standard, or they are provided with a watch of the required standard.” He gave what is, in my opinion, one of the most regimental kick-ass speeches ever made by someone who woke up the industry idea. 

As we’re on all things horology, this particular “Watch Inspection System” will be elaborately discussed later on, as it’s vital not only for the remaining years of the American railroad system – before quartz watches – but the very essence of what BALL watches stood for until today.

These stringent yet esoteric requirements were fully supported by the Lake Shore & Michigan South Railway, which appointed Webb to be the “Chief Inspector” in July 1891. The inspection system kickstarted the beginning of a vast BALL network that would eventually encompass 75% of the railroads nationwide, covering at least 125,000 miles of railroad that extended into Mexico and Canada.

Circular No. 1 issued by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Co., appointing Webb C.Ball as Chief Inspector

Upon enforcing the standards of accuracy through his “Railroad Time and Watch Inspection Service,” Webb developed several specifications for accurate and dependable railroad pocket watches, including different patented calibers. They each adapted to the industry’s stipulations, which we’ll be taking a look at in a while. His accomplishments here would later pave the way for gaining contracts of the remaining eight Vanderbilt railroads east of Chicago by 1902, achieving preeminent status in the railroad timekeeping programs.

Watch Inspection System

It is difficult to ignore the wedded relationship of BALL and railway stories. Webb C. Ball was instrumental in establishing new standards for extensively utilized watches and an inspection system requiring them to be checked solely by competent watchmakers. This watch inspection system included the record-keeping of the performance of each timepiece under his own strict rules and regulations – whereby four of them were to be on every passenger and freight train – carried by a conductor, engineer, fireman, and rear brakeman.

So how did BALL provide reliable timing instruments? First off, an initial list of timepieces was to be approved by BALL before submitting to those who then offered them to the workers. Even after the selected watch was certified and approved, it had to be re-submitted routinely every two weeks for synchronization with the standard Washington Naval Observatory time that Web had previously implemented. If the watch needed to be repaired, another synchronized watch would be loaned to the worker for his operation. Speaking of rigorous requirements, these inspected-twice-a-week watches had to go through another complete inspection after two years. 

When the watches were up for inspections, personnel had to report to an appointed inspector to be checked while carrying a card to verify the assessment. Initially, these watches were required to vary not more than thirty seconds per day, which at that time was quite a feat. On top of that, the whole inspection was to be done within 30 days.

Inspection of the watches on the Lake Shore Railroad

That’s how crazy it was for the industry, but Webb had hegemony in keeping everything in check. Most importantly, the consequent increase of the safety for everyone. When Webb was appointed as the chief inspector, it gave him full authority over the stringent inspection system to be put to use assertively. Some might think he might have been overly dominant in dictating what might seem like commands of the Royal Navy Officer to his recruits. Still, the tenacious man had set out to accomplish what he was supposed to. He even offered these highly accurate watches at a fair price for those workers who needed them as necessities.

At an average internal initial inspection in 1892, as many as few hundred were rejected out of around two thousand watches. These rejected watches were then either adjusted or replaced with approved loaners. At this point in time, BALL was noted for not offering their own watches just yet. Instead, Webb recommended and purchased stock from high-grade Hampton pocket watches. 

“Time Inspection Service, Circular No. 1” circa 1891 shows the system implemented on Lakeshore & Michigan Southern Railway after the Kipton Disaster, Spurring BALL’s jewelry store into BALL & Co. that retails and inspect watches.

Originally known as the Mozart Watch Company, the watchmaker later renamed itself Hampden Watch Company in 1877. It was then sold to John C. Dueber, who founded Ohio’s Deuber Watch Case Company, and both operated in Canton, Ohio under the “Dueber-Hampton Company” entity. Since 1890, John and his company – where Webb worked for the past – had produced and offered qualified pocket watches that even the cognisant himself recognized.

With its early 1890s hunter case-back
Another 18 sizes, 17 jewel movement adjusted to BALL Standard, signed “Superior Grade- Adjusted.”

The Test of Time

Evidently dedicated to his role, Webb’s organization took several significant steps to test the railway watches entirely on its own. During early times, when new movements arrived from manufacturers like Hampton, a dedicated team would record each serial number before passing it on to the in-house watchmakers to be disassembled and rebuilt. Once reassembly was done, the watches were then returned to the administrative staff who kept the recordings. Again they went for testing. Though it’s a nifty practice, this approach seems to be an uncommon practice even today. Only exceptional brands like Germany’s premier Alange & Sohne kept this practice today. 

A salesman’s manual that introduced the new 16-sized models with several Ball’s trademarks and patents

All reassembled watches would be transferred into an oven during the testing phase, withstanding a temperature test at 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32°C) for four hours before dipping straight down to a 40 degree Fahrenheit (4.44°C) in an icebox for another four hours. After the heat-and-cold tests, each watch would continually spend 24 hours in time accuracy check of six different positions:

  1. Dial-up
  2. Dial down
  3. Pendant up (usually where the crown-like knob or button is located)
  4. Pendant right
  5. Pendant left
  6. Pendant down

These watches would be checked and tested against the chronometer, in which the shop’s master regulator would receive time signals from Washington daily over a direct wire at 11am in the morning. Any slight deviation detected would send those watches back to the watchmakers again for another round of adjustment. Finally, before handling these passed-with-flying-colors watches to the time inspector, they’d be returning to the team for retesting once more. 

Old advertisement by BALL in the twentieth century, showing the consistent inspection and testing practices in all of its pocket watches

At this point, I thoroughly felt BALL had outdone anyone in the industry regarding timing and quality inspections. Webb’s intransigent attitude in establishing an orderly yet finicky system had allowed him to not only perpetuate the safety of railway transportation through reliable watches but also entrenched BALL’s watches among the finest timekeepers all over the world. Moreover, I strongly believe the phenom’s hellbent testing practices later inspired several eminent entities to consolidate chronometer checks. For instance, the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute), which BALL Watch Company relies upon in today’s time, and TIME LAB, also in charge of the renowned Geneva Seal.

Official Railroad Standard with Double “R”

By now, we’re well informed on the watches issued by BALL sealed the “standard” of America’s railroad watches. Although we’re also able to derive that BALL didn’t manufacture its own in-house yet, the well-established jeweler turned its effort to rely on several key watch companies and case manufacturers. Since 1879 where BALL had its moniker labeled on watches’ dials, it had trusted on stock watches from the following makers: 

  1. Hampden
  2. Seth Thomas
  3. Hamilton
  4. Waltham
  5. Elgin
  6. Illinois
  7. Howard
  8. Wadsworth (case)
  9. Dueber (case)
  10. Keystone (case)
  11. Vacheron Constantin (Swiss watchmaker)
  12. Record (Swiss watchmaker)
A BALL pocket watch manufactured by one of the “Holy Trinity” Swiss watchmakers, Vacheron Constantin

The companies that provided official “Railroad Watches” were initially 16 to 18-size pocket watches. While most of those makers were from the U.S., BALL also relied on revered Swiss watchmakers like Vacheron Constantin and others. Primarily, the reliance on several vital suppliers was to meet the demands in a short period. But while they were not produced in-house, all were designed according to BALL’s requirements – which I will elaborate on shortly below – to fill both the public and personal needs for quality watches.

Despite the extravagant finishings, this watch was built to BALL’s standard and would have to pass its inspection in the 1890s

Despite the lack of manufacturing capabilities and heavy reliance on several other renowned suppliers, they all had to go through the testings mentioned above and inspections and built according to the unique criteria and specifications laid down by BALL. Several other specifications were:

  1. Must be 16 or 18-size
  2. Have a minimum of 17 jewels
  3. Keeping time to plus or minus 30 seconds per week
  4. Must have double roller
  5. Must be lever set
  6. Winding stem at 12′ o clock 
  7. Must have a plain Arabic dial and heavy hands
An early 1898 BALL pocket watch with 17 jewels and a gold-plated case

Before the turn of the twentieth century, most of the pocket watches supplied to BALL were from Hamilton and Waltham. Since both watchmakers were the largest in the country, they provided most of BALL’s “Official RailRoad Standard” watches. The spectrum of supplied pocket watches is far too diverse to tackle succinctly, so I won’t geek out and dive into every single archived pocket watch (maybe in the future, perhaps). But these two watchmakers’ BALL ORRS watches were the archetypes of the whole BALL’s offering. 

One that’s made by Waltham circa. 1899 (Photo Credit: The Pocket Watch Guy)
With its 19-jewel 16-size caliber (Photo Credit: The Pocket Watch Guy)

Though the Waltham’s pocket watch above was based on BALL’s criteria, it displayed several unique traits. Like for instance, the exemplary ORRS watch bears circular damasking on its case for better durability. The fine Waltham’s manual-winding movement imbued a double roller with a superior micro regulator. Tech-works aside, the 16-size movement also accoutred gold balance weights on its surrounding for batter oscillation, topping off with raised gold jewel caps on the movement plates. It was finished off with another center wheel with the drive train radiate in gold hue. Based on the BALL’s specifications, it’s a lever set and stem wound pocket watch caliber.

Another notable attribute of these BALL pieces was the early efforts by case-makers. Notably, early gold-filled and nickel cases were made by Keystone (Hamilton later joining). The elegant ornaments found on these sturdy cases were available with screw back and bezel, hinged double-back, and swing ring models.

An example of the meticulously embossed casework by Keystone Watch Case Co. with its 14K gold-filled hallmarks and “BALL MODEL” label (Photo Credit: TimeZone)
(Photo Credit: TimeZone)

Around this time, Webb C. Ball and L. Cobb, his top watchmaker, spent a great deal of time designing and upgrading their watches constantly for the railroad industry. As a result, several designs and tweaks could be seen in both the movement itself and the inspection system established by Ball.  

One of the patents designed by Webb and his watchmaker L. Cobb – a distinctive style of plate design, in 1900

Triple “9”

Another noteworthy milestone before the twentieth century was the introduction of a unique 18-size pocket watch. Before its fruition, the inception was in October 1891, where Lake Shore officials were planning a high-speed passenger service. Despite the Kipton accident earlier that year, the Vanderbilt group was working on a risky project encapsulating a train that met a rapid 25-hour schedule, from Chicago to New York City.

The legendary #999 locomotive

The high-speed passenger service required anomalous built locomotives that could travel from New York to Buffalo in an unprecedented eight-hour schedule. Soon, the Vanderbilt group, including the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, had built a special locomotive that broke the speed record on 10 May 1893. The automotive pulled a total of four cars at an incredible speed of 112.5 MPH (180kmPH)! It marked the first-ever man-made vehicle to break the 100MPH limit at that time. This remarkable feat had caught the world’s attention, highlighting its impact on the importance in our lives when we shifted towards high-speed, jet-setting travel.

An 1893 newspaper article on the record-setting #999 locomotive

As we’d remember, the exact same year Webb C. Ball was appointed as the railroad Chief Inspector. So naturally, he was tasked to issue a split-second timing watch with recording both of those aforementioned high-speed schedules. Webb decided to capitalize on what would be significant for his company reputation in tandem by turning to one of the best watchmakers of its time: the Hamilton Watch Co.

Here, we ought to acknowledge that Hamilton, as early as 1893, was already producing timekeepers for railroad service in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The great watchmaker unveiled its own railroad pocket watch in 1893, with its reliable 17-jewel Grade 936 caliber. Hamilton set out to produce a commemorative BALL watch known as the 18-size “999” watch in 1895. This 18-size movement was painstakingly adjusted to five positions for accuracy and built to withstand temperature and isochronism factors.

An early example of Hamilton’s BALL #999 pocket watch circa 1895, with its 17-jewel, 18-size caliber (Photo Credit: Collect-Sell)
(Photo Credit: Collect-Sell)

With the attested reliability of movement, Hamilton utilized the caliber as a foundation for the particular Grade 999 pocket watches for BALL, clad within a gold-filled ornate “French bow” case, fabricated by non-other than Keystone Case Co.itself. During the first year, Hamilton had a spurt in delivering no less than 400 grade #999s to BALL, a production run extended to 16,034 in total, from 1895 through 1908. Once BALL received these already robustly built, elegant watches, they had to go through another round of stringent inspection under BALL once again. How crazy is that?

“On The Ball”

I am sure that the standards I have established for railroad purposes have greatly helped to bring the American watch to its present state of regularity and precision.

Webb. C Ball, an interview with NewYork Tribune, January 1910

A circa 1940s BALL pocket watch Grade 999B made by Hamilton, with its patented 10K rose gold-filled stirrup bow case (Photo Credit: The Pocket Watch Guy)

Since Hamilton was one of the two largest producers for BALL Co., they made another 57,000 more of these Grade 999s pocket watches for Hamilton, up until 1942 when the American watchmaker pulled the switch of supplying to others or for commercial sales, to entirely focus on production for World War II. But during the partnership at the start of the twentieth century Hamilton, along with others, offered these pocket watches in several distinctive yet functional case designs while sticking strictly to a small number of dial aesthetics.

An early twentieth century Hampden 16 size pocket watch with Deuber gold case (Photo Credit: Hobbydb)

Apart from the ornamental gold-filled and nickel-chromed finished pocket-watch cases, BALL watches marked the turn of the century with an array of designs. The first eminent feature was the “safety bow” silhouette adopted by the American watch company. Occasionally referred to as “safety stirrup bow” in publications, it’s the ring-like piece that protects the 12’o clock crown, which the wearer attaches a strap chain to.

With the “safety bow” feature, the earlier watch cases were manufactured in high pendant style. This design was patented by BALL, allowing its watches to be easily distinguished from others, which collectors are exceptionally fond of today. The chain was fittingly short, allowing one to wear it around their neck or wrapped around one’s wrist when checking the time. It can be seen as a safety strap for your D/SLR cameras. And yes, it’s ergonomically designed short.

An ad from October 1918 featuring the “safety bow” case

On top of that, the cases were hinged with double case-backs, recognized today as the “hunter” case-back in horology. Popping both the hinged case-backs, you’d see a wonderful time capsule of watchmaking that was stunning to behold. Through these features, it represented everything about the halcyon days of pocket watches.

However, the old-school double case-back was not designed to be mere decor when it came to BALL. As the man himself wanted his supercilious timepieces built with longevity and reliability, the inner case-back acts as an additional “dust jacket” to protect the mechanisms. Like the specifications required for each watch movement, the case designs were functionally built parallel to the highest, or, should I say, the official standards.

Ball Watch Co.18-size “Commercial Standard” hunter-styled watch with patented double case-back, circa 1898

Again, Webb and his talented team incessantly innovated and adapted to the needs by upgrading. By the late 1910s, we saw a shift in the market trend, marking the Art-Deco epoch for the country. BALL started infusing a new style into its watches. The watches gradually shifted towards a lower pendant design, and the case evolved from hinged-mechanisms to screw-down case-backs with an open-dial concept sans the hunter cover.

Producers such as Hamilton and Wadsworth continued to supply the “Official Standard” railway watches to BALL with new criteria, with a smaller caliber of 16-size. This was because railroad workers frequently responded that the 18-size ones were a little too large.

A circa 1927. BALL “Official Standard” Watch by Hamilton, with the gold-filled engraved case manufactured by the Wadsworth Case Company (Photo Credit: The Pocket Watch Guy)
(Photo Credit: The Pocket Watch Guy)

Many variations of BALL ORRS were produced with the newer specifications until the late 1950s when advanced technologies were incorporated into the industry. In contrast, mechanical works like these were not vogue and were met with declination. Nearing the end epoch of railway-based pocket watches, the American watchmaking industry got hit hard due to the aftermath of World War II. Therefore, existing watch firms like BALL just couldn’t stand by the “only watches made in America” ruling anymore. Instead, the company relied on others from Europe, specifically those from Switzerland.

A Record-BALL 16-size railroad pocket watch from the late fifties with the 17-jewel, high-grade 435 caliber

A fine example would be the 16 size pocket watches made for BALL by a renowned Swiss watchmaker from the watchmaking valley in Jura. Known widely for its effort in producing one of the twelve “dirty dozen” field watches for the British Army, its post-war pocket watches made for the BALL enterprise marked the last major-production railroad timepieces.

Interestingly, from BALL’s archive, I’d able to jot down that the company had an affair with wristwatches during the 1920s. Although wristwatches were not particularly in demand during a period where pocket watches were exciting (only Cartier started putting watches on men’s wrists as early as 1904), Webb didn’t waste the opportunity to introduce his first wristwatch made for the conductors. 

First noted BALL wristwatch, circa the 1920s. Next, check out the oblong gold-filled case with Arabic hour markers and blued steel hands

The Conductor watch (familiar moniker) was born during the Art-Deco period, presented in a yellow gold-filled rectangle case. While the case was dazzling, the dial was all about legibility. The watch fused both elegance and functionality perfectly – cladding a white background with black Arabic numerals, reminiscent of BALL’s own pocket watches. In fact, the Conductor wristwatch was an essential step to BALL, as it would later go on to inspire the current day’s timepieces within BALL’s Conductor collection.

The Brotherhood and “Standard” Dials

A rare example of the BALL’s Order of Railway Conductors, No. 307412, Series VIll, circa 1893

In addition to these design patents and mechanical developments, Webb had established several trademarks registered using the names of early railroad unions or labor organizations. These organizations included the renowned Railroad Brotherhood union, in which Webb was also elected to its honorary membership in 1921. Therefore, with these registered names, the company was able to have these prevailing unions’ monikers on the watch dials.

BALL registered trademarks using the names of railroad unions

Different unions resulted in various insignia markings on the dials of the watches. This gave BALL the advantage of promoting itself as the official railroad timepieces inspector and offering its own, even when respective manufacturers made all of them. Therefore, when customers purchased any of these ORRS pocket watches, each of them would be given watches with a quip about them being actually used by official railway personnel. No doubt bestowing the loftiest precision and reliability – a credit that would be later found on all modern BALL wristwatches.

Another circa 1922 Brothehood’s BALL pocket watch with Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen (Official Standard) No. In B269465

Speaking of placing BALL logos on dials, Webb C. Ball had further specified the specific style of the numerals on the dial and the shape of hands, resulting in a distinctive appearance of BALL dials. To begin with, the majority, if not all of the ORRS dials, utilized Arabic numerals for the hour markers. Although Roman numerals dials were evidently still in use through the early twentieth century (the Roman pocket watch by BALL shown above), Arabic ones would later become the universal application throughout the century. Numerous dials were basically finished in enamel material baked and fired onto a copper base.

Most BALL railway timepieces imbued an archetypal “spade shape” hour and minute hands to clearly indicate each marker on the dial. They had a shorter and stubbier one for the hour while the minute one usually stretched towards the outer minute track and their steel base material was heat-treated. As pocket watches of those times had a sub-second register at the bottom of the dial, a svelte needle-shaped second hand was in place, ticking away in a low-beat rate around the sub-seconds register.

Several distinguished dials were designed significantly and used by BALL for its own pieces—case in point, using a single-sunk dial. For example, the sub-second dial at 6 o’clock had a separate enameled “sunken” below the main dial. It had two benefits: firstly, the assurance of better reliability with better clearance of the main hour hand (the one right atop of the seconds). And it displayed a ritzy look where a sharp transition took place between both dials compared to press materials.

A single-sunk BALL dial with the marginal minute type (Photo Credit: Pocket Watch Database)

Also, a notable railway dial format that BALL applied was the “Marginal Minute” type. Next to the minute marks, each minute numeral delineated the minutes altogether on the outer-most periphery of the dial. These could be seen on numerous dials. This particular format might appear straightforward as something of a BALL doing but historically has been proven not so.

On 15 February 1910, Webb issued a circular to a group of railroad employees, emphasizing the clear and legible dial. He initially listed a few as three “standard” dials, while others were too fancy and were bluntly called “freakish” dials. These dials were indirectly laid against those patented by Henry S. Montgomery, a General Watch and Clock inspector of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF), who provided his popular dials from 1896 to 1923. These dials were, in fact, conspicuously accepted as AT&SF’s standard dial by 1906.

Three standard dials (above) in contrast with three “freakish” dials (below) that resemble the famed “Montgomery” dials

Despite the heated controversy on whose marginal minute dials were more practical and safer to be used. Both BALL’s and Henry’s were heavily adopted by several watchmakers in America. Interestingly, BALL had its own ORRS Montgomery dials 15 years after the passing of Webb.

A 16-size single-sunk BALL ORRS Montgomery dial (Photo Credit: Hamilton Pocket Watch)

To freshen things up a little, BALL had to cater to a special dial format for their Canada branch (more on that later), with what would be referred to as the “Canadian” dials. In addition, due to the nation’s railways needing a twenty-four-hour system since 1886, BALL provided its own with a dial that included a “military” style 13-24 hours markers within the sizeable Arabic hour numerals.

A 23-jewel BALL standard Canada pocket watch, note the 24-hour inner ring (Photo Credit: TimeZone)

Another notable dial format BALL applied was the “Ferguson” dial. Patented by L. B. Ferguson of Monroe, Los Angeles, in 1908, the “third-party” styling emphasized the minutes over hours found on usual railway dials. The double-digit Arabic minute numerals were often more prominent than the inner-ring hour markers, efficiently recognizing the minute faster than anything else on the dial. Amusingly, BALL had argued the Ferguson dial was considered “freaky” as it was simply too quirky. Despite that being said, this minute-over-hour format was seen on several BALL ORRS watches.

A typical Ferguson dial found on an early 1900s BALL ORRS watch, note the ginormous minute outer-ring (Photo Credit: NAWCC)

Last but not least, In 1925, three years after Webb’s passing, his company went on to instill a new ORRS dial format that’s referred to as the “Box Car” dial. Known as the “Heavy Gothic” dial by producer Hamilton, it featured clean sans-serif hour markers, now heavily bolded that greatly enhanced readability. These dials were usually paired with the highly desired patented beret-green BALL logo still seen on today’s BALL wristwatches. 

 BALL circa.1946 Railway pocket watch by Hamilton, Model 999B with the signature stirrup bow case and the plain but effective “Box Car” single-sunk dial (Photo Credit: The Pocket Watch Guy)
An old advertisement showcasing the “Box Car” dial with high-grade 21 or 23-jewel calibers

All that said, the above lists might not be complete, but they exemplify the austere designated dials selected by BALL. No matter the minor changes in the fonts or numeral sizes and layout, BALL had established what would possibly be one of its best-known standardizations for the whole railway industry. From a time when professionals needed them for their jobs in the early nineteenth century to the post-World War II era right before modern technology surpassed the need for irksome pocket watches considering their “large” size to carry. No “standard” dial format better encapsulate BALL pocket watches’ aesthetic, feeling, and quality.

From Store to Corporation

Webb C. Ball was a freak – way ahead of the game. He was the Bill Gates of his day, making and inventing some absolutely revolutionary things. He changed the whole game.

Jeff Hess, chief executive of BALL Watch USA

By 1908 and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Webb C. Ball and his company were at their apogee of providing superior timing instruments in the railroad world. Evidently, at that time, they were already inspecting over a million watches for about 180 railroads across America and other nations. This was purely through his original shop in Cleveland; around 800 watches were undergoing inspections at any point, with 20 to 25 employees simply zoned in to make those accuracy adjustments.

The one and only Webb C. BALL Watch Co.

While it’s hard to categorize BALL as a bona fide watchmaker company initially, the strong-willed Webb was still a national figure, cognisant of offering the bests out there. His inspection system facilitated a period where precision timing was underplayed in an industry that heavily relied on it. It resulted in the successful application in over 75% of the railroads across America, Canada, and Mexico.

It’s also unsurprising that the prevailing company expanded its dynasty. As we’re aware, the first BALL store grand opening in 1879 took approximately thirty-nine years for the firm to fully broaden its operations. As previously done a few times on different BALL entities, I’ll attempt to unveil the establishment of Ball enterprises throughout this period.

In October 1891, Webb C. Ball Jewelry Store became a much larger corporation known as Webb C. Ball Co. Inc. Bear in mind that this was the crucial period where he was tasked as the official Inspector Chief from Lake Shore and Michigan South Railway. Three years later, Webb victoriously formed his Ball Watch Company to distribute Hamilton pocket watches.

“All-BALL” watch crew of the “American” advertisement with the ingenious “Box Car” dial with stirrup bow case

Interestingly, Webb actually played a significant role in the early management of Hamilton Watch company. A report from Cleveland Plain Dealer on 23 August 1894 stated that Webb was appointed as the western agent of Hamilton Watch. For two years, Mr. Ball was both a share-holder and the Hamilton Watch Co. Co-vice president. This eclectic position ensured all western sales of Hamilton pocket watches had to go through his newly formed “The Ball Watch Co.” in Cleveland for distribution. It wouldn’t take long for BALL’s instrumental effort to be recognized, as it was evident that Hamilton had doubled in its business in 1895.

As both an enterprise that thoroughly inspected and offered railway pocket watches and was the sole distributor of Hamilton on the Westside, BALL didn’t stop its expansion. In November 1897, the BALL Company announced they would be forming the “Ball Standard Railroad Watch Co.” which attempted to incorporate manufacturing plants while primarily distributing watches. Ten different investors funded this formation was also funded with $100,000 and it was incorporated in Columbus, Ohio (perhaps another outlet). 

Another “Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman” advertisement

However, some things didn’t turn out as smoothly as the others. While Webb did announce his plans to incorporate those watch manufacturers, he didn’t enter the field. He worried it was too far a stretch for his enterprise’s diversity (internally). He was aggravated by the U.S. government at that time, perceptibly making things difficult for new or smaller watchmakers to survive (externally). Just look into the history of other smaller American manufacturers in that era, choosing to either close down or merge with others. Instead, he continued prudently to have factories do their own jobs and build watches according to his specifications. I felt it was both a tremendous strategic and economic move so BALL could focus on their core businesses of making sure those watches bearing their names achieved the utmost reliability on the market.

Family Affair

Not halting to catch a breather, Webb pressed on to explore other means for distributing his railroad watches. At the beginning of the new twentieth century, an opportunity came as BALL extended to a wholesale distribution business in Chicago. During the expansion, Webb remembered his optician, Dr. Julius King, who shared his office in Cleveland and agreed to have his Chicago one for his wholesale business in 1902. What’s more remarkable was this wholesale business grew under the direction of his only son. Twenty-two years old at the time, young protégée Sidney Y. Ball went further to acquire several small companies to expand the family business. BALL acquired Noris-Alister Co. from Chicago, followed by the Hoefer Jewellery Co. from Kansas City, the Beard and Haman Companies of St. Paul, and Despress, Bridges & Noel Co. of Chicago. 

These acquisitions resulted in the “Norris, Alister, Ball, Bridges Co.,” which eventually shortened to just the “Ball Company.” Through the leadership of his son Sidney Y. Ball, the company was adulated as one of the largest wholesale jewelry companies in the whole of America.

A twentieth-century advertisement on BALL’s fulfillment on the “Safety First” inspection system for its watches

Before the passing of Webb, His last establishment was the “The Official Bureau of Railroad Time Service, Inc.” in 1918, later organized in Canada. This incorporation went on to provide the inspection service for railroads. Sadly on 6 March 1922, four years later, Webb died in his home in Cleveland. Although his lifetime work which received global plaudits, had come to an end, his legacy was continued on by his son and three daughters, Wilma, Florence Ball, and Alice Andrews. 

A criticism often leveled at BALL history is that a dizzying number of enterprises were started, replaced, and stopped throughout the following decade, one side effect of the company’s large and diversified operations. Seemingly when BALL, like among the other Americans’ watchmakers and jewlers, were hit by the aftermath of the war, with the emerging of Quartz technology alongside. From the late sixties to the end of the century, the company somehow succumbed to the Quartz crisis, but the family members held on through it.

Indeed, during these challenging times, the Ball family held on to their father or grandfather’s well-laid foundations in handling the BALL dynasty. For instance, the establishment of highly legible “Box Car” dials for the railway pocket watches from the twenties through to the sixties; and most significantly, BALL started offering wristwatches during this century. 

During the WWII period, BALL had its own share of military-style wristwatches known as the Fireman

During the years when wristwatches were springing up, BALL hopped on the bandwagon, again with other manufacturers’ help. Many of the watchmakers in the U.S. focused on producing wristwatches for the army to prepare for the ongoing international conflict in the forties. BALL had those companies (apart from Hamilton) produce some of these rugged field watches for themselves.

One example that gave birth to an entire collection, later on, would be its Fireman field watches, fabricated by the local manufacturers. It resembled the typical design of what the others were producing, like the Hamilton’s Model 987S and the A-11s by Waltham and Bulova. While BALL’s did not conform to any military ordinance, this allowed them to keep its “railroad” monikers on its early watch collection – coining them things like the “Conductor” allowed the brand to brilliantly connect its affiliation back to its railroad affair.

The Fireman watch had a close resemblance to this 1945 WWII A-11 Waltham (Photo Credit: IMA USA)

After the war there was a focus on chronograph timepieces. BALL had its fair share, too, with historical examples of bi-compax manual-winding chronographs with different measuring scales typically found at that time. These watches were once again made by other local watchmakers and kept the collection with Railroad Standard trademarks. Models like the “Brotherhood” wristwatches and pocket watches were notably tributes bestowed on Webb’s honorary membership with the unions.

A circa 1950s two-register chronograph made in the “Brotherhood of Ball” trademark, with both telemetric and pulsmetric scales

A New Resurgence

I’d been approached by companies in the past,” he says, “but had no interest. But this was different. I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be part of maintaining the legacy of Webb C. Ball.

Jeff Hess, chief executive of BALL Watch USA

As the late twenties gradually marked the increased use of the railroad block system, a communications system that relied on a series of automatic signals to divide a railway line, which diminished any external system required. Therefore, the need for an inspection system was quickly replaced by quartz technology, making it obsolete. Cleveland’s original BALL jewelry store halted its operation in 1962, but its process from the Chicago branch and Webb’s great-grandson George Ball was not quelled.

BALL” s advertisement on promoting its “Twentieth Century” railroad model

During this phase, George would continue to provide watches, with several of them outsourced now to Switzerland as many local watchmakers had ceased to function. The seventies ORRS Trainmaster was as such, with automatic ETA movement imbued within. In keeping the BALL spirit, the company released several Swiss-made wristwatches with distinctive BALL flair. The watch kept the “Box Car” dial that reflected their railway pocket watches, and the traditional aesthetics persevered in the current Trainmaster collection of today.

A Swiss-made ORRS Trainmaster circa 1978, with “Box Car” dial and automatic ETA 2821 caliber

By the late 1980s, Ball Watch finally ceased all of its production due to the rapid changes in the market conditions like the Quartz and the economic crisis that prevailed. These existential threats resulted in many watch brands collapsing, manufacturers shutting their doors for good, and watchmakers facing unemployment. And in 1994, the brand was acquired by a new passionate ownership group from both America and Hong Kong. There are quite a few investors within, with the two most prominent ones Mr. Jeffrey P. Hess and Asia Commercial Holdings Ltd. 

Jeffrey.P. Hess, Current CEO for BALL Watch Company

Jeffrey, a local native from Maryland, Illinois, had a long-term passion for watches. He had started at a young age where his first spark for pocket watches was in the1960s. He had gone on to be a watch dealer for many collectible timepieces and had written several books, including the famous “Rolex Bible.” As a man considered a true watch entrepreneur with deep knowledge, no wonder he was approached by the consortium that had newly acquired BALL’s family business. 

They’d known they needed the right man for the task, and Mr. Hess didn’t disappoint. Before he could commit, he genuinely did not want to disappoint the family and was laser-focused on what he was doing. He approached George Ball with several Swiss prototypes to show that he knew his stuff, sharing what he could. Impressed by his effort and knowledge, the BALL family gave their blessings, and the rest was history.

Since then, BALL Watch USA was established in 2004, with the new headquarters still located in America, and finally, its very own watch manufacturing situated in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Today, the brand is still considered American-owned, thanks to Mr. Hess, marking another successful transition period for BALL. Thankfully the legacy was not lost from this earth. In fact, the new team managed to keep the brand’s horological history with precision timekeeping. In the second part, I’ll be extensively going through today’s collection, where traditional heirloom ethos meets state-of-the-art modern watchmaking technologies.

To find out more on what’s going on with the new direction of modern BALL Watch Company, stay tuned for Part 2!

Gnomon Watches first opened her doors for business online in early 2002, founded by bona fide horology suitors who share a profound passion for watchmaking and fine craftsmanship.
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