To “keep your eye on the ball” means to pay attention and to be weary of things around you. There are three origins to this phrase. The first comes from ball-games such as soccer and basketball, obviously, where not keeping your eye on the ball could mean losing a game. The second origin comes from ‘time balls’, which were spheres placed on top of towers built near coastal seaports. At noon each day, the time-ball would drop, indicating that sailors onboard ships were to synchronise their watches to maintain correct time.
The third supposed origin of this phrase comes from the Ball Watch Company (and this claim is mentioned on their website*). According to the Ball Watch Company, to ‘keep your eye on the Ball’ (capital B), meant to be aware of the time. And the watches which the Ball Watch Company sold had very good reason for being looked at regularly. They were all railroad chronometers.
What is a chronometer?
A chronometer is a very accurate mechanical timepiece, from the Greek words ‘Chronos’ (time. From which we also get ‘chronology’), and ‘meter’, meaning ‘measure’, therefore – the accurate measurement of time. The first chronometers were invented in the late 1700s and a century later, accurate timekeeping was assured in almost all high-quality mechanical timepieces. For several hundred years, accurate timekeeping has literally meant the difference between life and death. At sea, inaccurate timekeeping meant not knowing your co-ordinates (see “Shipboard Life during the Age of Sail”) and losing your way. In battle, correct timing of attacks meant the difference between victory and defeat. In the second half of the 19th century, accurate timekeeping meant the difference between a train arriving at the station on time, or becoming the front-page disaster story in the newspapers the next day. Railroad chronometers were one of the most crucial and strictly-monitored timekeeping devices ever made. Today, a watch may only be called a chronometer if it passes the strict, timekeeping tests carried out by the Swiss organisation known as ‘COSC’, that’s Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres, The Official Swiss Control of Chronometers. No mechanical watch may hold the title of ‘chronometer’ if it has not first been passed by this organisation.
What is a Railroad Chronometer and Why are they Needed?
Also called ‘railroad watches’ or ‘railroad-standard watches’, a railroad chronometer was a pocket watch capable of keeping time accurately enough to be used on the railroads (usually in the United States and Canada, but also in countries such as the UK and the various countries of Europe and elsewhere around the world). Railroad watches were important because they ensured that all trains left their stations on time, arrived at their next stops on time, and prevented any two trains being on the same track at the same time, which could (and did), lead to catastrophic train-wrecks.
In a day and age before radio, before CCTV cameras and before mobile phones, the only way to literally keep trains on track was to ensure that their crews all knew the correct time. Not knowing the right time (and thus leaving the station too late, or too early), could be a disaster. Trains back then all played a dangerous game of locomotive Russian Roulette, switching railway lines all the time in a delicate dance of precision, service and speed. One stumble and two trains could collide head on. In the small (just 265 people in 2000!) town of Kipton, Ohio, USA, in 1891, two trains crashed because one engineer’s watch stopped for four minutes and then restarted again. The collision was so severe that both engineers and several passengers were killed in the impact. This accident drove home the necessity for accurate timekeeping on railroads in a day where getting from A to B on time was the only way to reliably stay alive in a steam locomotive going upwards of 90mph.
Photograph of the 1891 Kipton train-crash which changed timekeeping forever.
What made a watch a railroad watch?
If you were a railway engineer or a conductor onboard a train back in 1900, you had to have a railroad chronometer. This was the law. It was illegal to board a train and do your job without one. There were strict accuracy checks carried out on all railroad watches and they could be done at any time, any day, anywhere, completely randomly. So you had to make sure your watch kept absolutely pinpoint precision time…all the time. So how was a watch made to be so accurate?
Amongst the several design-features, was the provision of at least 17 jewels. ‘Jewels’ were rubies which acted as jewel-bearings, to cut down on friction inside the watch and allowed it to run smoother and keep better time. As time passed, jewel-counts went higher and higher, finally stopping at 23, for a fully-jewelled watch.
It also had a micrometic regulator. The regulator is the little needle inside the watch which regulates its speed, by compressing or relaxing the hairspring. The micrometic regulator could be moved by turning a screw built into the modified needle-housing. Turning the screw like this allowed for absolutely microscopic adjustments to the mainspring, allowing for more accurate timekeeping.
A Micrometic regulator. The two knurled wheels either side of the regulator-needle which wrap around the threaded rod underneath, allow for the smallest movements of the regular-needle, making tiny adjustments in timekeeping possible.
Apart from these two (and other mechanical design-features) inside the watch, there were also numerous design-features outside the watch which had to be present, before the watch would be permitted to be used on the railroads.
The original guidelines for railroad chronometers were as follows:
* only American-made watches may be used (depending on availability of spare parts)
* only open-faced dials, with the stem at 12 o’clock
* minimum of 17 functional jewels in the movement, 16 or 18-size only
* maximum variation of 30 seconds (approximately 4 seconds daily) per weekly check
* watch adjusted to at least five positions : Face up and face down (the positions a watch might commonly take when laid on a flat surface); then crown up, crown pointing left, and crown pointing right (the positions a watch might commonly take in a pocket). Occasionally a sixth position, crown pointing down, would be included.
* adjusted for severe temperature variance and isochronism (variance in spring tension)
* indication of time with bold legible Arabic numerals, outer minute division, second dial, heavy hands,
* lever used to set the time (no risk of having the stem left out, thus inadvertently setting the watch to an erroneous time)
* Breguet balance spring
* micrometer adjustment regulator
* double roller
* steel escape wheel
* anti-magnetic protection (after the advent of diesel locomotives)
Railroad watches had to keep time perfectly under some of the most trying conditions available in the early 1900s. Freezing winter and boiling summer temperatures, the rocking, rolling and vibrations of early steam locomotives, dim light available in the locomotive’s cab and the magnetism generated by early diesel locomotives (which might make a watch keep inaccurate time). The big size of the watch, hands and numerals was important because it helped engineers (who were confined to dark locomotive cabs at night) to read the time clearly. Having every minute marked out allowed them further timekeeping accuracy.
Adjustments and Positions.
All railway watches had to be able to keep time in various ‘positions’, that is, under various conditions and scenarios. There were eight possible ‘adjustments’:
* Dial up.
* Dial down.
* Crown up.
* Crown down.
* Crown left.
* Crown right.
* Temperature (From 34-100 degrees Fahrenheit).
* Isochronism (The ability of the watch to keep time, regardless of the mainspring’s level of tension).
Railway watches had to be adjusted for temperature, iscochronism and all the positions, with the exception of ‘Crown down’, which basically means the watch is put upside down and checked for accuracy. As you might have guessed, a railway pocket watch was a very expensive timepiece. A significant amount of this expense came from the adjusting. It took several days, even weeks, to adjust a railway watch to railway standards of timekeeping. A watch had to keep the ‘+/- 30 seconds a week’ rule in ALL of those adjustments and positions and this took weeks of testing.
Railroad Chronometers Today.
The necessity for super-accurate pocket watches (wristwatches were not allowed until the very last years of railway chronometers) on the world’s railroads steadily declined after the 1950s, with advancing technology. Today, a really accurate watch isn’t necessary for railroad safety, but to this day, railroad chronometer pocket watches are amongst the most accurate (and most prized) of all mechanical watches and they can sell for hundreds of dollars. They are highly collectable and prized posessions. Here are a few of the more famous railroad pocket-watch models:
The Illinois Bunn Special.
The Elgin Father Time.
Last but not least…
An actual Ball Watch Co. railroad chronometer pocket watch. This is actually my own watch. It’s a Ball model 435C; it was made in 1960 and it was used on the Canadian Pacific Railroad during the very last years of railroad watch use.
Each of these watches was made to, and was expected to, keep time to the ‘railroad standard’ of +/- 30sec a week (Max. variation +/-4sec a day).
* “…BALL watches came to be known as “the cadillac” of the watch industry and the phrase “get on the ball” refers to using a BALL watch to keep time…”
- Ball Watch Co. USA website. Cited Friday, 22nd Jan., 2010.