‘On the Ball’—Webb C. Ball’s Contribution to Railroad Watches and Timekeeping

A Ball Watch Co.-certified railraod watch.

A Ball Watch Co.-certified railraod watch made for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union.

While not made by Ball Watch Co., it is marked on the inside of officially certified railraod watches.

While not made by Ball Watch Co., it is marked on the inside of officially certified railraod watches.

Webb C. Ball was born in Fredericktown, Ohio on Oct. 6, 1847 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.

After the infamous railroad collision locomotives belonging to the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern railways at Kipton, Ohio, which allegedly occurred because an engineer’s watch had stopped, unnoticed, for about four minutes, then restarted, the railroad officials commissioned Webb C. Ball as their General Time Inspector in order to establish precision standards and a reliable timepiece inspection system for railroad watches.

Webb C. Ball

Webb C. Ball

When these rules were established and inspections started, the results were shocking. Many railroad engineers, conductors, trainmen and officials were carrying cheap “dollar” watches—that came free with a suit—cheap alarm clocks and a myriad of low-end seven- and 15-jewel watches totally incapable of accurate timekeeping. “Standard” clocks in highly sensitive locations that hadn’t had maintenance in years or were cheap “kitchen clocks,” also incapable of reliant timekeeping.

The Ball Watch Company did not manufacture watches directly, but had watches manufactured to the specifications for use in railroad service. Webb Ball established strict guidelines for the manufacturing of sturdy, reliable precision timepieces that were resistant to magnetism and would keep accurate time in three positions (later five), isochronisms and power reserve, accompanied with record keeping of the reliability of the watch on each regular inspection. All Ball watches are distinctively laid out and all marked “Ball Watch Co.” on the movement, case and dial, no mater which watch company produced the watch. This “Ball Watch Co.” markings, therefore, makes it difficult to distinguish which watch company had actually made the watch. Tiny details, like the curve and sweep of a watch plate or the shape of the hairspring stud are the only telltales of the actual maker.

An advertisement for a "Ball Watch."

An advertisement for a "Ball Watch."

The Waltham Watch Company complied immediately with the requirements of Ball’s guidelines, later followed by Elgin Watch Company and most of the other American manufacturers. Later on, they were joined by some Swiss watch manufacturers, namely Vacheron & Constantine, Longines, and Omega. The Ball Watch Company branded and distributed watches made by Hamilton, Waltham, Illinois, Elgin, E. Howard, and Hampden. Watches marked “BALL & Co.” are much more difficult to find than those marked “BALL WATCH Co.” Ball watches are today some of the most collectible of the American railroad pocket watches. Ball also produced watches marked for various railroad unions, such as the B. of L.E.(Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers), the B. of L.F.(Firemen), the B. of R.T.(railroad Trainmen), and the O. of R.C.(Conductors). These watches were produced in very limited quantities and are highly prized by collectors today.

Interesting anecdote about the jewel count in “railroad watches”: Web C. Ball didn’t believe a good watch needed more than 17 jewels to be a high-grade timekeeper. In fact, all of Ball’s early “official standard” railroad watches only had 17 jewels. Later he added two more jewels to the mainspring barrel, bringing the jewel count to 19. This was option not a requirement, making all the holes jeweled. It was competition and customer requests that led Ball to produce watches with 21 and 23 jewels, but in limited quantities. Balls with 23 jewels are hard to find and highly collectible, therefore quite expensive, with 21′s following close behind in the collectible watch world.

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Today’s criteria for the certification of each Officially Certified Chronometer (COSC) are still based upon Webb C. Ball’s standards.

At the end of his career, Webb C. Ball oversaw more than 125,000 miles of rail tracks in U.S., Mexico & Canada, having greatly contributed to the safety and security of all railroad systems.

Ball’s jewelry store in Cleveland became very successful and quite well-known, designing and retailing many different types of watches, all to Ball’s exacting standards. Ball’s demanding principles left a cornucopia of wonderful watches and the accessories for today’s collectors.

The original Web C. Ball Watch and Jewelry Company went out of business in the 1960s but was since re-born in Switzerland and is producing high quality durable “sport model” wrist watches.

The colloquial phrase “on the ball” purportedly derives from Webb C. Ball’s watch standards and their reputation for accuracy.

Buy a Ball, time them all!

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in watches.

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No Comments

  1. Mike Knights says:

    Dear David,

    I was doing a little research on the Ball Company and came across this article. My father and grandfather worked for the Ball company in Chicago. I believe the original Ball company bought or merged with a Chicago company in the early 1900′s. The main office moved to Chicago soon after and the Ball Company was headquarter there. My grandfather worked for the Ball company in Chicago from the 1920′s until the late 50′s. My father worked for them in the early 50′s, left the company for about 10 years and returned to work for them from 1965 until he retired in about 1980. I know he worked for Webb Ball, whether he was the son or grandson of the original Webb C. Ball, I don’t know. I did meet him once in the early or mid 70′s when I was about 12 years old. I have been trying to piece together some history of the company but there seems to be little information about the years when I believe they moved to ?Chicago. Unfortunately, my father passed away back in 1990 and I did not get into much history about the company. I do still have a series of 6 pictures from 1940-1945. Railroad scenes. I think they were sent to jewelers as sort of a promotional photo. I have not found anyone who has a full series of these as I do but would be interested to know if you do. I can send you a picture of one if you would like.
    Sincerely, Mike Knights

  2. David mycko says:

    Hello Mike,

    I don’t think you met the original Web C. Ball unless you went through a time portal, he passed away in 1922. There was and still are quite a few decendants of ‘ol Webb C. Honestly, I have only a working knowledge of the Ball Co. The “expert” is Jeff Hess of Hess Fine Art in St. Petersburg, Fla. But being a direct decendant of an employee of W.C.B.& Co., he may have more questions for you than visa-versa. Mr. Hess purchased the last of the watches from the estate of W.C.B. from the remaining family members. Yes, I would love to see that series of pictures you have. Please email me a copy Rolxrr@Yahoo.com and thank you for using Worthpoint!

  3. Jeff Hess says:

    Thanks Mr Mycko,

    The gnetleman actaully met Webb C. Ball II who ran the company until turning it over to his son George and his nephew R Burgess.

    Webb C. Ball II is often confused with his grandfather Webb C. Ball.

    jeffrey p. Hess

  4. mike howell says:

    my father left me his ball 999b 21 j pocket watch. it is after 50 years still very true to time keeping( runs about 2 min. fast a month. i would not sale it for any amount as my son will have it one day. the secret to keeping one running well is find a watch repair man you trust. mine is a fourth gen. watch repair man. have it cleaned at least every 2 to 3 years, wind it at the same time every morning. and do not run it in the washing machine as a friend of mine did. you cannot go wrong with a ball. you will pay for an old one but worth it