Although I now collect wrist watches, I started out two decades ago collecting pocket watches. I was particularly fascinated by American railroad watches.
The 19th Century was a time when technology was growing by leaps and bounds, at least compared to all the centuries before. In 1800, the fastest a man could travel was on a galloping horse, about 40 mph, and not for very long! Travel across the continent took months, requiring careful planning, careful conservation of resources, and a lot of luck. Along came the steam locomotive, and within a few decades it was possible to travel from sea to shining sea in a matter of a few days.
Railroads laid track everywhere, but being businesses, they needed maximize the profits they could wring from the investment. In many places that meant multiple trains running on a single track, sometimes in the same direction at very different speeds, sometimes in opposing directions. To prevent accidents, railroads carefully calculated their schedules, so that for example the slower freight train that started first would pull off into a siding at a particular time to allow the faster express coming behind it to pass. This meant train crews needed to know the correct time, to the minute. To make that possible, railroaders were required to carry and use a high-quality watch, to have it inspected for accuracy frequently, to have it serviced routinely by a railroad-approved watchmaker. The safety of the train crews and the passengers depended on it.
There's a lot more on railroad time services on the NAWCC's site.
From the time Elgin was founded in 1865, they always made at least one movement of very high quality, suitable for railroad use - the B. W. Raymond. It started out as a 15j keywound, 18s movement, but the name was applied over then next 100 years to a wide range of movements - 18s, 16s, even 12s pocket watches, and finally even the 13/0s 730A and 780 B.W. Raymond Railroad Wrist Chronometers. The final iteration, around 1964, carried a Swiss sweep seconds movement.
The last model of B.W. Raymond pocket watch was the 571, a 21j, 16s watch with the latest horological and metallurgical advances of the time. It had an unbreakable Durapower mainspring, a monometallic balance and a balance spring that didn't change elasticity with temperature, unlike steel. Elgin made at least 87,000 of these, primarily for railroad service. I've wanted one for a long time, and recently I was able to pick one up for a pretty good price, by taking a risk on a listing with lousy pictures and a seller with very little feedback. Sometimes you get the bear!
I was very pleased with it when it arrived! It's in very good shape, with no macroscopically visible brassing on the case. The hands are the proper Elgin originals, right down to the spear-shaped second hand. The bow is nice and tight - frequently one sees these with replacement bows, reflecting a long life under hard conditions! When I removed the bezel, I was VERY happy to see a perfect, hairline-free porcelain dial.
The movement was in good shape. Not pristine, but clean and with no obvious bodges.
The serial number dates it to 1950, right in the middle of the switch from Steam to Diesel.
I noted that the regulator was set to the 'fast' end of the scale, usually an indicator of needing service. With some trepidation, I wound it up. The balance started right up, and ran beautifully with lots of amplitude. I timed it on Biburo, and saw that, Dial Up, it ran pretty much dead on, but with the double track that indicates significant beat error. Dial Down, it ran fast about 8 sec/day. The pendant positions had it running fast between 20 and 30 seconds/day. I ran it overnight DU, and it gained 4 seconds. I carried it for a day, and it gained 10 seconds. I allowed it to run down completely, which took roughly 49 hours.
Not railroad standard, which is <30 seconds/week, but for a watch with unknown history, an okay place to start!
With much trepidation, I undertook the job of servicing it. I won't detail the cleaning, apart from to say that it needed it. The pivots were all dry, with the usual residue on the surfaces. I have altered my cleaning regimen so that now I clean and polish the jewels with pegwood BEFORE running the parts through the cleaner. This does away with the need for Rodico to clean off the pegwood debris.
After running through the machine, I pithed all the pivots, reassembled and oiled the cap jewels, and laid out the pieces ready for assembly.
Oh, yeah - I had opened the barrel, removed the mainspring, cleaned it an the barrel, oiled it, and put it back into the barrel with a winder - the only safe way to do so!
Recently I've started checking the balance as the first step of a reassembly, so let's have a look at it - the heart of a Railroad watch!
I installed the balance in the cock, and installed that onto the pillar plate.
A light puff with the blower, and the balance spins like mad! This is the time to check whether the balance runs true in the round and the flat, and also to observe whether the hairspring itself is true. In this case, it was more open toward the pallet side. With my finest tweezers I gently grabbed the spring at the last bend, and with a needle held in a pin vise, GENTLY prodded that curve slightly more closed. It took a couple tries, but in the end I was satisfied that it was now true. I removed the balance and cock and set it aside till later.
The first step is to install the barrel and the set lever screw lightly greasing the latter. In the 571, this is not really a set lever screw, but rather a DETENT lever scew. More on that later.
Next comes the train, starting with the escape wheel, the the 3rd , the 4th, and finally the center wheel. Different movements stack them differently, so you need to either remember the order, or just look for the big cut out in the pillar plate. Note the one for the 3rd wheel above
Now comes the barrel bridge. Before tightening the screws, make sure you see the glint of the pivots in the jewel holes!
Now the train bridge. While the center and 3rd wheel pivots generally drop right into place, the 4th and escape pivots usually need a little fiddling. But you'll know when they're in place - the bridge will generally drop into place, and if you prod the center wheel, the whole train will spin smoothly, slowly coming to a stop. This is your first indication that your cleaning was successful. I generally hold down the bridge with a finger or a piece of pegwood while installing the first screw, and before I torque it all the way down, I check yet again to make sure the train runs freely.
If you look carefully, you can see that the escape and 4th wheels are in motion!
Now comes the ratchet wheel, click, and crown wheel. Once the ratchet wheel and click are in place, you can check backlash. Wind the ratchet wheel up a couple clicks, and observe the train. It should spin smoothly, then stop and run backwards for a second or so, coming smoothly to a halt. If it doesn't do that, you have to go back and fix that before going on.
The 571's keyless works are different from most other railroad watches in an important respect, for reasons that date back to the start of watchmaking companies in America. For the first 50 or so years, the watch companies sold only movements. Other companies made cases, and jewelers would pair the watch movement to the case for the buyer. The crown and stem were part of the case. In the 1920s, the watch companies started selling cased watches so that the case would be unique to the company. Elgin took advantage of this with their "Streamline" series of 12s pocket watches, making the stem and crown part of the movement - the whole stem and crown needed to be removed by loosening the set lever screw, just as in a wrist watch. This did away with the fiddly and easily breakable sleeves in the pendant of the case, but if a watchmaker tried to remove the movement from the case as they always had, they'd break the stem or the set lever.
With the introduction of the 571, Elgin applied the same approach to the stem in a lever-set movement. In this case however, what had been the set lever merely holds the stem in the movement, becoming a detent lever. The problem is, unlike 12s and smaller watches, American 16s movements had never done it that way, so one often sees 571s with broken detent levers, and over the last 50 years, the stock of NOS ones has largely dried up. If you're buying a 571, you should check that the stem is held in the movement! Here's the piece:
And here it is in context.
The setting lever pivots on the set lever screw, moving the clutch into engagement with the bevel pinion to wind, as it is here, or with the hour wheel to set.
Back on the movement side, it's time to install the pallet. As always, make sure the pivots are in place before tightening the pallet cock screw! You can JUST see it in this pic.
Once screwed down, you can check that the pallet is free by seeing whether it falls from bank to bank when there's no power on the train and you turn the movement one way and the other. Ideally, it should fall from its own weight, as here.
Put a few winds onto the mainspring, and test the snap. Moved a little, the pallet should return to the banking pin. Moved a little further, and it should snap across to the other banking pin. This is a good time to apply lubricant to the pallet stones - I use Moebius 9415, and only on the impulse surface.
Now you can install the balance. Often, as in this case, the balance starts turning as soon as it drops into place.
Make sure it KEEPS turning as you tighten the screw. If it stops turning, stop tightening IMMEDIATELY, and get it started again.
Once it was all back together and running well, I wound it up fully, and moved the regulator to the center of the range. I tested it on Biburo.
Dead on, and even better the double track is now a single line. Adjusting the hairspring moved the balance back into beat!
I recased it, and let it run overnight. Most of the position error seems to have gone, and I've started the process of regulation. I don't REALLY expect Railroad Standard, but this watch is easily capable of it in the hands of a pro! I'll update as it goes through its paces!
UPDATE: I spent this week doing position testing, in all 6 positions. The mean rate was -8 for all positions, with no big losers or gainers. Using Biburo, I moved the regulator just a little faster. It was showing -7.5sec, so I moved it to +0.5. I reset it, getting it as close to dead on with NIST as possible on Saturday morning. I was off by -1 sec. Sunday morning, it was at -4. I carried it all day Sunday, and Monday morning it was at -3, so it gained 1 sec.
I declare it As Good As It's Going To Get!