On April 18, 1891, a devastating disaster rocked national headlines: a US Postal Service fast mail train and a passenger train collided head-on in Kipton, Ohio. Nine people lost their lives in the crash, and it set off a chain of events that would change railway industry standards for timekeeping in the United States forever.
Following the Kipton disaster, railway officials arranged an investigation of the incident and the respective engineers’ timepieces, appointing Cleveland jeweler Webster Clay Ball (already well-respected for the quality and reliability of his watches and his commitment to implementing standardized time signals) to pinpoint the cause of the discrepancy. Ball found that the watch belonging to the engineer of the passenger train had failed; the watch had stopped and re-started, causing it to fall four minutes behind. Scheduled to be safely out of danger in the sidling and awaiting the passage of the Fast Mail, the train was instead slowing to approach the sidling when it met head-on with the oncoming locomotive.
Subsequently, Ball was appointed as the Chief Time Inspector, spearheading the General Railroads Timepiece Standards Commission. His work with the Commission led to a wide range of policy changes, including the 1893 General Railroad Timepiece Standards, a set of stringent criteria for North American pocket watches used by the railway industry, as well as the requirement of regular inspections for accuracy. Many major watchmakers began to produce railroad grade timepieces following the adoption of these standards, and these chronometers have been coveted by collectors throughout the 20th century for their accuracy, durability, and importance within the historical context of the American Railroad. Approximately 30 railroad-grade timepieces are featured in our Rare and Important Timepieces catalogue, including 11 by Ball & Co.
The earliest Ball & Co pocket watch featured in the catalogue is a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers pocket watch dating to 1893 (the same year the General Timepiece Standards were enacted). Carrying a $4000/6000 estimate, the Series VIII is considered quite rare.
Ball & Co. “History.” Retrieved from http://www.ballwatch.com/global/en/company/history.html
Duling, Paul. “History of Pocket Watches.” Heritage Pocket Watch. Retrieved from http://heritagepocketwatch.com/history-of-pocket-watches/
The Greenwich Pocket Watch Co. “History of the Pocket Watch.” Retrieved from https://www.greenwichpocketwatch.co.uk/history-of-the-pocket-watch-i150
Pope, Nancy (2013, April 22). “The Great Kipton Train Wreck.” Pushing the Envelope: Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. Retrieved from http://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2013/04/the-great-kipton-train-wreck.html
Wikipedia (2018, August 13). “Webb C. Ball.” Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webb_C._Ball
Other image: Clerks sort mail on a Railway Mail Service Train.