July 4th Special: The Greatest Watches Born In The USA

It’s Independence Day and everyone can admire the cause of freedom, representation and a government accountable to the people at the point of a gun.

After some help from the French, the US colonials defeated the English and became a free nation. Rejecting constitutional monarchy, they formed a unique system of federal administration agreed by member States, who could make their own local laws too. It was – and is – a good system of government that stops power falling into the hands of one megalomaniac like Stalin, Hitler, Mao or Justin Trudeau.

The United States went onto to become the world’s economic powerhouse in the late 19th century and remained top dog for most of the 20th too. Along the way, the USA created some truly memorable timepieces so Northern Watch Co magazine salutes these legendary watches. Let’s take a look back.

THE RAILROAD POCKET WATCH

The idea – like the English Navy’s plea for a method to calculate longitude – was simple; build a watch that could prevent horrific accidents on American railroads by calculating train movements accurately, in different time zones. So began the quest for a better type of pocket watch than the early Waltham key wound watches that Civil War officers sported in the 1860s, plus a set of standards that meant everyone working the railroads was using similar grade watches.

We must admire the early Waltham pocket watch of course, because it was arguably the first watch that used mass production methods (division of labour into one specific task) and watch specific machine tools in one building. Previously watch factories used women and children to assemble boxes of bought in parts and do some finishing or polishing work.

The Waltham was the Model T of its era. But like most key wound watches, it was inaccurate, vulnerable to dirt getting under the dust cover, or letting in moisture via the foldover type bezels/crystals that were typically used 1830-70.

TOP WINDER, TOP WORK

The `top winder’ railroad pocket watches made by Elgin, Hamilton, Waltham, Illinois and many more all replaced the imported English pocket watches of the 1850s that were regarded as the best in the world at that time. They also advanced the early US made pocket watch designs through meeting specific market demands, not just engineering for its own sake.

You see the genius of the railroad watch lies within the standards being applied to the market, at that time, rather than ground-breaking technology in the watches being built for sale to the public. The railroad regulations created a regulated market – if your watch didn’t make the grade, it was consigned to the dollar watch box at the hardware store.

Railroad watches had to feature a white dial, with black numbers. Had to be a certain diameter, with at least 17 jewels in the movement.  Must be able to withstand extreme temperatures, from Illinois winters, to California heatwaves. The rules were all about reliability and ultimately, safety, since timekeeping accuracy meant lives could be saved on the rialroad tracks.

This was the very first tool watch, a pocket version of a ship’s chronometer that Harrison invented in the 18th century, a timekeeper which was designed to do one task brilliantly, efficiently and reliably – regardless of the weather, external movement of the vessel, or dust and dirt coating the timepiece.

For that reason, we say the railroad pocket watch is a true American classic. Without the rigorous testing and standards applied by US railroads in the 1890s we would never have a COSC grade Omega today. Fact.

HAMILTON ELECTRIC VENTURA

Most people think the Japanese brand Seiko, or possibly Casio invented the battery powered watch. Well, that was the quartz watch. The Hamilton brand created a battery powered watch back in the 50s, when TV was a new thing and the Russians had only just started sending rockets into space.

The Hamilton Electric came in different case designs, with the Ventura being the most collectable now. The quirky Ventura was supposedly futuristic, but if you tip it sideways it actually looks like a `30s mantelpiece clock with its chamfered edges. But battery power in 1957 was trailblazing stuff and Hamilton did well to create a watch that received its escapement energy from a pair of magnets and a coil. Clever stuff.

It wasn’t a success long term, despite Elvis being signed up to market the Hamilton Ventura. And here’s one good reason;

BULOVA ACCUTRON

The Bulova brand had been experimenting with electric watches throughout the 1950s and by 1960 they had the space age Accutron ready to launch. Maybe they learned a few things from Hamilton’s rush to market, maybe they just had a genius designer, but the humming Accutron was a reliable timekeeper, plus the movement looked like the future, a tiny computer brain inside a wristwatch.

The clever twist with the Accutron was the tuning fork, which vibrated at a constant frequency, making it ideal for timekeeping. Way back in the 1850s a Frenchman called Breguet – yep, part of that famous dynasty – invented a tuning fork clock, so the idea wasn’t new. But the Bulova expression of it was Twentieth Century; miniature, modern, scientific. It captured the `we choose to go to the moon’ optimism of the early 60s, with its circuit board movement and Spaceview skeleton dial design.

This was an American era that celebrated technological advances, had a `can do’ attitude and like so many US companies of the 50s and 60s Bulova delivered a product that excited the consumer market. It also undoubtedly inspired the Japanese to find a way of making that concept smaller, cheaper to manufacture and replace the tuning fork with a quartz crystal.

For all those reasons, the Accutron is peak American watchmaking, a perfect storm of cutting edge engineering, mass production and slick marketing.

Happy Independence Day.

 

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