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The Origin of the Railroad Watch

The Great Kipton Train Disaster

A photo of the Great Kipton Train Wreck in 1891.On April 19, 1891 the first mail train known as No.4 was coming west on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad in Kipton, Ohio. At Elyria, 25 miles from Cleveland, the engineer and the conductor of the ACCOMMODATION were given orders to let the fast mail pass them at Kipton, a small station west of Oberlin, the University town.

From the time the train left Elyria until it collided with the Fast Mail at Kipton, the conductor, as he admitted afterward, did not take his watch out of his pocket. He said that he supposed the engineer would look out for No.4. But the engineer's watch stopped for four minutes and then began running again, a little matter of life and death of which he was unconscious. There were several stations between Elyria and Kipton, but the engineer pounded his train slowly along in the belief that he had time to spare. Leaving Oberlin, he supposed he had seven minutes in which to reach the meeting point. Of course, he had only three minutes. Had the conductor looked at his own watch he could have prevented the accident. The trains came together at Kipton, the Fast Mail at full speed and the ACCOMMODATION under brakes, because it was nearing the station. The collision killed the engineers of both trains, and the rescue workers pulled the dead bodies of nine clerks from the kindling wood and broken iron of the postal cars.

A typical railroad pocket watch.As a result of the accident, the railway company hired Webb C. Ball, a well-known Cleveland jeweler to investigate watch use on its lines. When his investigation showed that railroad employees weren’t operating any time and watch standard, he created a new set of standards for railroad pocket watches which included being accurate to within 30 seconds per week, having 15 jewels, and having a white face and black Arabic numerals with each minute shown, although some watches had silver faces until the 1920s. The watches also had to be temperature compensated because variations in seasonal temperatures could cause a watch to speed up or slow down.

He also required that railroad engineers have their watches inspected regularly, upon which they were issued a certificate that guaranteed the watches’ reliability. If an engineer’s watch was faulty, he had to pay for the repair himself, and while it was being repaired, he borrowed a loaner watch from the jeweler. Having an accurate watch was a requirement for his job. It was vitally important for everyone’s watch to show the correct time since most railroad lines had only one track for trains traveling in both directions. The Kipton disaster proved that even if an engineer’s watch was off just a few minutes, the result could be deadly. Ball’s promptness and accuracy was the origin of today’s well-known phrase, "on the ball."

WATCH A VIDEO:  Elgin Railroad Watch Lever-Set Operation

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