Sand is more convenient and less variable than water; so the hour-glass crowded out the clepsydra.
The New York Times, June 26, 1867, p. IM19:
Making Watches in America.
What is the time? American, decidedly. Ten years ago it was Swiss, or English, or French. Now, ask your nearest live, progressive, patriotic neighbor. The watch he pulls out in reply is labeled, not "Geneva," nor "Liverpool," nor "Versailles," but "Waltham, Massachusetts."
What has wrought the change? And what were earliest modes for measuring the pace of that old Mower whose scythe is always sharp and whose barns are never full?
The sun-dial was the first. It is among the oldest of human inventions. Chaldean Kings used it in Babylon. Charming old Herodtodus found it in Egypt while taking notes to depict "the small as well as the great estates of men."
Next came the clepsydra. It was a glass vessel from which water ran out through a little aperture at the bottom. It was a sort of household tide. The height of water told the hour. To the question, "How late is it?" fancy the answer "Four o' the clepsydra."
Chaldea, India, China used it. Plato found it in Egypt--perhaps upon one of his oil-peddling expeditions--and carried it home with him.
Greeks and Romans employed it in courts to limit their voluble lawyers. Like his contemporaries, Aristotle mentions it. If he did keep the drug-store in Athens, doubtless one stood upon his counter and told him when to go to dinner, and when to shut up shop. Julius Caesar, from whom our July (why is it here before the time?) derives its name, found it among the rude Britions. And Caliph Haboun al Raschid, hero of the Arabian tales, sent to great Charlemagne gifts of a tent, an elephant, a clepsydra, and the keys of the Holy Sepulchre--just as Mr. Seward, by the Japanese Commissioners, will send to the Tycoon an omnibus, a buffalo, an American watch, and a combination safe.
Watch ad from the Nov 4, 1927 NY Times
Good King Alfred burned candles to mark the hours. At least we were taught so; but pitiless investigators--who, as Hans Christian Anderson says, "ask questions and never dream"--may have disproved it; they disprove all the good stories about him. It ought to be a penal offense to raise a historic doubt on any subject whatever.
Linnaeus had a more royal luxury. The great botanist wooed Nature till she whispered him her closest secrets and showed him her shyest habits. He so arranged a circle of flowers that one opened every hour. He could always tell the time by fresh blossoms. Rare floral clock. If the Connecticut factories could only give us that. It was like a perfect human life--every new hour marked by a new bloom and beauty.
In Europe clocks first appeared in monastaries 800 years ago. Monks attributed their invention to the Saracens, people, to the devil. Two centuries later they were common, for sad-eyed Dante sings of their striking. And hence have sprung all horological curiosities, from the great clock at Strasbourg, with its pedestrian gymnastic saints, down to our curious mantel ornaments of Prussian handiwork, which tell their owner hour, day, month, year, sunrise, tides, weather--almost everything except the condition of his bank account and the state of his wife's temper.
The watch is a direct descendent of the clock, and like most sons a trifle more flippant and pretentious than its honest father. Perhaps with cause, for it is a wonder of wonders, a pocket planetary system. It was born in Nuremburg, 400 years ago. Henry VIII., of wife-killing memory, carried one. So did his contemporary Charles V., who
"Cast crowns for rosaries away,
An empire for a cell."
These watches were crude constructions and large as our dessert plates. In Shakespeare's time they had become common among private gentlemen. Says Malvolio, in "Twelfth Night:" "I frown the while, and perchance wind up my watch or play with some rich jewel."
In this country watches were little known until after the Revolution. Eighty years ago New-York City, with fifty thousand people, contained only about half a dozen. During the war of 1812, while our foreign trade was stopped, a few excellent watches were made at Worcester and Hartford. No others were ever manufactured in America until the last few dozen years. We could not compete with the low prices of European labor. So we imported all our watches--sometimes to the amount of $5,000,000 a year.
But the germs of a revolution had long been planted. A hundred years ago in Westboro, Mass., a boy was born, to modify the industry, commerce and politics of his country more than any other American who has yet lived. Eli Whitney, son of a poor farmer and mechanic, like the traditional Yankee, could make anything he ever saw, with a pocket-knife and a post ax.
Given these two implements he constructed all other needed tools as fast as he required them. At 16 he made wrought iron nails (scarce and high during the revolution;) then the pins with which our grandmothers fastened their bonnets. He worked his way through Yale, repairing its philosophical apparatus which Professors believed could not be mended on this side of the Atlantic; found his habitual recreation in working with carpenter's tools; graduated at 27; and soon after, while in Georgia, studying law, invented the Cotton Gin.
That made cotton one of the great staples; rendered slave labor profitable; and in two generations so changed the industry and sentiment of the South as to bring on the great rebellion.
The inventor's experience--it is the old, sad story! If a flying machine were to start from the Central Park to-morrow and make a successful trip to the Moon, a score of men would instantly claim, with some show of proof, that they constructed the same vehicle ten years ago. Eli Whitney had the inevitable, long, hard struggle. Courts refused to protect him against infringements; States, growing rich from his ingenious contrivance, treated him with niggardliness and bad faith. His partner died; his manufactory burned down; and in fifteen years his patent expired, to leave him a poorer man for having originated the greatest invention since the steam-engine.
But the Westboro boy was born to success. He foresaw this failure; and years before he had found another channel. In 1798 he contracted to supply the Government, from his new manufactory near New-Haven, with 10,000 muskets in two years. The undertaking was stupendous, and eight years passed before the last gun was delivered.
But then he had overcome all difficulties. He filed a new contract for 30,000 more, and the man who had starved on the cotton-gin, which was to render the South powerful and defiant, grew rich on the musket, by which the same South was to be subdued. It was a curious prospective revenge.
Our Springfield rifled muskets, the best in the world, have grown up from the weapon of Eli Whitney. But his great achievement was the inauguration of a new method. He first employed each workman, not to make a gun, but to perform by machinery one operation upon some one part of the gun. With untiring zeal, year after year, he invented and perfected the needful machines.
He first made 10,000 muskets exactly alike, so that a given screw, or spring, or pivot from any one of them would fit any other equally well. Dividing and systematizing labor; machinery for every process; absolute uniformity to each detail--this was the revolutionary idea which Eli Whitney put into practice. It has proved the characteristic, distinctive American principle in manufactures. We apply it to everything; comparatively, foreigners apply it to nothing.
The inventor of the ingenious automaton chess-player exhibited it to an Englishman, and he pronounced it "Wonderful!" to a German, and he exclaimed "Impossible!" to a Frenchman, and he cried "Superbe! Magnifique!" then to a Yankee, and he asked: "What'll you bet I can't make one like it?"
That was provincial. Inventiveness is not genius. Japanese and Chinamen can copy any machine whatever. And are we not of more value than many Pigtails?
The genuine American would wager, not that he could make one like it, but that he could make a million. By the application of Whitney's idea--the creation of machines and perfect uniformity of parts--could he reproduce and multiply it indefinitely.
Thus we make our steam engine, which doubles our laboring population; our great printing-press, upon which even the London Times (of course it (cannot understand the Americans) is worked; our little sewing-machine, which reduced incalculably the manual labor of American women; our piano, which, after all, does take premiums in Paris; our reapers, which cut the world's wheat; our quartz mills, which supply the world's gold and silver.
This principle, long applied to the clock, had driven out foreign competition. The watch, so minute and so delicate, seemed to offer insuperable obstacles. But fifteen years ago, two sanguine, plucky Bostonians, who made watches by hand, originated a project for making them by machinery. Infusing their own zeal into neighbors, they formed a clock company, obtained $100,000 in subscriptions, and in 1854 the daring enterprise practically began. It was up-hill work; little capital; no experience; no protection; everything to learn; every slave of steel and iron to be created and fashioned before it could do their bidding. They toiled until 1857, and then failed. Their establishment was sold under the hammer. But they had solved the problem; they were making watches by machinery.
Mr. Royal E. Robbins, on behalf of other parties, bought the establishment, and afterward, to secure himself, had no alternative but to carry it on alone. There were many dark days. Existing machines were imperfect. New ones, too, must be invented, for much work was still done by hand. Many mutations occurred; but Mr. Robbins, with unfaltering faith, invested his every dollar in the enterprise, and adhered to it through all changes. He converted it into a stock association, called the American Watch Company, and he is still its Treasurer and Business Manager.
Foreign watches are made by hand, no two exactly alike; each an individual; each subject to the nerves, caprice, idiosyncracies of the maker. But our manufacturers began by making a watch--like a steam-engine--solely by machinery, and with exact uniformity of parts. The have advanced steadily, learning, improving, perfecting, year by year. Their idea was purely American; their machines have all been invented and run by Americans. All have originated with their own employees, just as the most ingenious improvements in California and Idaho quartz-mills spring from the working mechanics and miners. Indeed, the Company are satisfied that the reason why we can make watches by machinery, while no other nation can, lies in the average native ingenuity of the American mind.
The nice minuteness of these machines is incredible. It is the crowning miracle of modern mechanism. The little scales in our national mints will weigh 1-5,000 part of an ounce of gold; but these automaton watchmakers are greater marvels. Here are instruments cutting threads, invisible to the naked eye, in screws of which 800,000 weigh only a pound! Here are exquisite sapphire knives, cutting metallic shavings of which 5,000 are required to make one inch in thickness! Here are microscopic diamond drills, boring into jewels like a needle point! Here are inventions for measuring as well--machines which determine the 1-10,000th part of an inch, in pivot or jewel-hole, as easily and unerringly as the carpenter's rule measures one foot on a stick of timber!
The factory in Waltham is a quiet inclosure of seventy acres, far from noise and dust. It is an immense structure, more than 300 feet long, with wings and cross-wings, inclosing great quadrangular courts. Its rooms are light and cheery, like parlors rather than the old close, foul quarters of operatives. Three-quarters of a mile of work benches; seven miles of steam, gas and water pipes; 750 employees, under the ten-hour system--one third are women, they do the work requiring lightness of touch, quickness, patience. In these qualities they excel the men. In accuracy and precision they equal them; in ingenuity they fall below. When, out of routine, one is "posed" by some new mechanical obstacle, her tendency is, not to overcome it by herself, but to take the refractory bit of steel or brass, or jewel, to the bench of her nearest masculine neighbor, and ask his help.
The Company make six different sizes. The largest, very heavy and solid, is humorously known as the "Boston style;" your Bostonian likes a great deal of watch for his money. The smallest is an exquisite, dainty little ornament for ladies. Ornament, because, did anybody ever know a lady's watch to be right? It is always too fast, or too slow; or the key was lost last week; or that bungling jeweler spoiled it in repairing. It has not pleased Heaven to endow lovely woman with genius for keeping a watch in order.
Hand-work implies variety. Machinery implies uniformity. It is mathematical, precise, like the operations of nature. IN a bushel of these most delicate pinions or wheels, for any given size of the American watch, each is exactly like all the rest.
That is the theory. It proves strictly true with this qualification. In polishing and infinitesimal pivot, a tool may be slightly worn, or some condition imperceptible to the senses may cause a microscopic variation in the cunning mechanism which your waistcoat pocket is to carry--a variation very shadowy, but still enough to make you just too late for the Washington train, or for paying your note at the Eighty-Seventh National Bank.
Therefore each pivot is not only carefully fitted and adjusted in its place, but accurately measured by these miraculous machines, and a record made of its dimensions. So, when, in any part of the world, a pinion or jewel breaks, by sending the number of your watch to the manufacturers you receive through return mail a new wheel to replace the old, with absolute certainty that it will fit. And thus with any piece.
The American watch has some advantages. It is American, from Alpha to Omega. It is cheaper at first cost than foreign competitors. It is simpler; it contains less than half as many pieces, and every new piece involves a new liability to break. It is easier to repair. Beside, the higher grades are warranted perpetually against all mishaps arising from any original defect or weakness. And it bids fair to be more durable.
But how does it keep time? That, after all, is the only question. Its success must be the best answer. The character of a watch is self-revealing. This, on its intrinsic merits, had to fight old prejudice, trade-combinations, established reputations.
In ten years it has practically driven out of our markets the English watch, which was our staple importation and in most common use among laboring men, and largelyl taken the place of other less costly foreign watches. After careful testing it has been adopted as the standard on the Pennsylvania Central, New-York Central and other leading railways where correct time is an absolute necessity.
The demand for it has fast increased. At the great Waltham factory one may read its history. Here a wing, there another, beyond a third, added year by year, to meet the growing want. Every season, except 1861, when we were all paralyzed, is commemorated by some such enlargement.
The business, which was bankrupt in 1857, has grown so rapidly that eight years later the Company manufactured 80,000 watches annually. It turns out a complete watch during every two and a half minutes of the working day! The single factory in Massachusetts, under one roof and one supervision, produces more watches annually than all the watchmakers of Old England combined!
This tells the story. The laws of demand and supply are unfailing registers. Other watch factories are beginning to spring up, East and West; but the American Company of Waltham is the pioneer; and thus far, practically, it has occupied the field alone. Its history marks the origin and growth of an interesting and important branch of our national manufactures. It not only proves that Americans alone can make watches by machinery; but watches which are cheaper, simpler, more durable, and keep time better than the same foreign grades. It is American skilled industry, working by machinery and well paid, steadily displacing European skilled industry, working by hand and ill paid.
Most American watches are consumed at home, though orders begin to come in from Cuba and South America. But sooner or later we shall furnish pocket time-keepers for the world. It is manifest destiny.
"The American Waltham Watch Company went out of business in 1957, but had founded a subsidiary in Switzerland in 1954, Waltham International SA, which now produces Waltham Swiss made luxury watches." Wikipedia: Waltham Watch Company
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Classic Gem Articles:
Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds 1895
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On Diamond Cutting 1867
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Classic Watch Articles:
Making Watches in Waltham 1867
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