‘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.


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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