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Ball Trainmaster Vintage Review

Evan discusses vintage Ball Trainmaster watches with collecting advice and more

For thousands of years, the pace of human life remained a relative constant. For primitive mankind extreme speed was defined by the fastest runners, then perhaps by those with the speediest horses. The invention of the wheel increased the capacity for larger-scale speedy travel and brought incremental change to our relationship with time and space. While chariots, and later wagons and carriages would have doubtless impressed our footbound ancestors, they would not have found them alienating.

Everything changed with the great leap forward that was the invention and widespread adoption of railways and trains. Within some fifty years of their initial commercial success in the early 1800s, passenger trains in the United States regularly ran at speeds exceeding 50mph- blindingly fast for a civilization used to traveling by foot or carriage.

The lightning-like promulgation of the American rail system had a vertiginous effect on the way time and space were experienced in everyday life. Suddenly enormous quantities of goods or vast crowds of people could be moved hundreds of miles within a single day. With this newfound speed, the east-west orientation of American expansion produced a new problem: a difference in the rising and setting times of the sun.

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Image courtesy Library of Congress

The sun was traditionally the standard by which schedules, and timing devices were set, with each town or settlement observing time on its own. It became rapidly apparent that this was insufficiently accurate for railroad scheduling. Accurate timing became a matter of life and death- conflicting use of a single railroad track is a fatal error. Trains had to be completely reliable in their stopping and starting times.

In 1883 railroad companies decided, for their own operation, to divide the nation into four time zones, Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. All clocks within each zone were to be synced with each other. In time the public came to adopt these time zones for their own use, and we use them to this day.

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Easly Railroad Time Zone Map. Image Courtesy Boston Rare Maps

Being On The Ball

The creation of time zones and use of them was a big step for railroad expansion, crucial to the growth of the United States itself, but a new problem began to manifest itself, often in grisly form.

The problem was the lack of standardization, and therefore reliability, in the clocks and timepieces used by railroad workers. Clocks and pocket watches were not always supplied by the railroads, and each conductor or engineer used whatever they could afford for themselves, or what was available.

A tragic crash between an extra fast mail train and a slower freight occurred in 1891 near Kipton, Ohio. The crash killed all 8 workers on board both trains. An official report was ambiguous as to the exact cause of the crash; whether a stopped watch had given a false impression of the time, or an engineer had simply ignored regulations was never clearly established.

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Aftermath of the Kipton, OH crash

The Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway used this opportunity to hire one Webster C. Ball, a Cleveland jeweler and watch seller, to inspect and improve their railway’s timekeeping equipment.

Ball reported an appalling lack of quality and maintenance amongst these mission-crucial instruments and developed a standard that came to be adopted widely amongst other rail companies as well. These were codified in 1893 as the General Railroad Timepiece Standards. They were as follows:

“Be open faced, size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to at least 5 positions, keep time accurately to within a gain or loss of only 30 seconds a week, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, have a double roller, steel escape wheel, lever set, micrometric regulator, winding stem at 12 o’clock, grade on back plate, use plain Arabic numbers printed bold and black on a white dial, and have bold black hands.”

Watches that met its requirements became known as railroad-approved. Engineers were required to submit their railroad-approved watches for inspection and testing at regular intervals, after which they would be returned with a certification of their performance.

Webb Ball was hired by the railroad and given the title of Chief Time Inspector and awarded himself a contract to produce the first watches specifically designed and approved for railway personnel use.

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Ball Jewelers, Cleveland, Ohio. Image Courtesy Ball Watch

Ball Jewelers were not a traditional watch manufacture, and their railroad approved watches used movements and cases from established watchmakers at the time- Elgin, Waltham, Gruen, etc. They were branded with the Ball name and “Official Standard” logo.

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Early advertisement for railroad standard watches

Conflicts of interest aside, the Ball company seems to have done an excellent job at both producing and maintaining durable and accurate timepieces.

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Early Ball Railroad Approved pocket watch. Image courtesy Frett & Co. Clockworks

It’s important to note that for the first 50-60 years of using the General Railroad Timepiece Standard, it applied strictly to pocket watches. Wristwatches were not worn commonly by men until the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1950s wrist watches were beginning to achieve the average level of accuracy required by the railroads, and many were approved for railroad use. It was during this time period that the Ball Trainmaster wristwatch was developed and released.

The Ball Trainmaster Wristwatch

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For as important an instrument as a railroad watch was, I can find little information online about the Ball Trainmaster. This may be because there is little to find out. It was a top-grade watch, but one made strictly for a very specific purpose and to a niche market. There seems to have been little interest on the part of Ball Watch Company in creating a story or marketing the watch in some superfluous way. The Trainmaster was certainly one of the most strictly-business tool watches of its day.

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an advertisement for a later, automatic version of the Trainmaster

What I do know is that this model was produced from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, and that in the late 1960’s a version with a cushion case and an automatic movement was released. To the best of my knowledge this watch dates from 1965.

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The Movement

The movement selected for railroad approved watches was of keen importance. In this Trainmaster it is the A. Schild 1604B manual wind movement, with 17 jewels and balance shock protection. It was likely commissioned by Ball for the Trainmaster; as far as I have been able to ascertain this movement was not used in any other watch by any other manufacturer. The 1604B is a standard A. Schild 1604 (the 1637 movement seems to be identical as well) with one important addition: a hacking lever.

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The hacking lever is usually a small metal arm activated by the setting mechanism. When the crown is pulled out, the lever moves and applies friction, typically to the balance wheel, stopping it and therefore the action of the watch. This causes the seconds hand to stop in place, allowing much greater precision in setting the watch.

On the A. Schild 1604B the lever does not act on the balance wheel but rather the fourth wheel. The reason for this unusual arrangement is not clear, and while a steel lever acting on the brass teeth of the wheel would be bad for the wheel, the fourth wheels on all of these I have seen have been fine.

Dial Details

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The dial of this watch is one of the most distinctive parts of the Trainmaster, and a large part of what makes this a railroad-approved watch. Watches that satisfied the 1893 standard were to “use plain Arabic numbers printed bold and black on a white dial”. The result is intense legibility and zero distraction. The flat white dial of the Trainmaster is not reflective, metallic or sunburst at all. Though the relatively small size of the watch may make one immediately think “dress watch”, this stark, high contrast dial quickly disabuses that notion. The handset is likewise plain satin black, with the seconds hand in red. The leaf shape of the hands is attractive and does a lot to make the appearance more elegant, well befitting of a uniformed train conductor or engineer. This dial and handset are one of my favorite examples of refined, purposeful design.

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Case

The case is without a doubt the pièce de résistance of the Trainmaster. It’s fully polished and made entirely of stainless steel. At 34mm in diameter it is beautifully sized for subtle, unobtrusive wear, but with the large, bold dial and thin surrounding bezel it has a very strong wrist presence. The thickness at 11mm feels appropriate to the case size, and the 44mm lug to lug gives it more presence as well.

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The lug design is the star of the show here; beautifully beveled and shaped, they’re known as the bombe design. Made popular by the Omega Speedmaster and subsequent Omega watches, they are straight lugs, but with curving, inward beveling that gives them a dynamic, streamlined appearance. Many watch enthusiasts refer to this style as “twisted lugs” and it’s easy to see why. On the Trainmaster they give it a bit of extra flare that makes the watch stand out from its railroad-approved peers.

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A screwdown caseback keeps this watch watertight and a lug width of 18mm means it’s easy to find straps for. It’s no slouch as a strap monster either; crocodile leather straps or vintage style stretch bracelets are some of my favorites.

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Collecting

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As a rail fan, I love the associations this watch has with the history and romance of the railroads. Although I do not know the provenance of this specific watch, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine it on the wrist of some railroad engineer or conductor, traveling the country on iron tracks and keeping precise time from coast to coast.

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Ball made several versions of the Trainmaster through the 50s – 70’s. Later models of this watch sometimes appear with the word “Trainmaster” on the dial- usually a sign that it contains an automatic 21 jewel movement, instead of the manual wind. Some were produced in more simple, straight lugged cases, both stainless steel and gold plated. Toward the late 1970s the Trainmaster switched to a very 70’s style cushion case shape, while retaining the same dial and handset.

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Images courtesy Analog Shift

At the time of this writing these bombe-lug Trainmasters can still be found for under $1,000, though the price keeps creeping up. I feel they are one of the more unique and interesting ways one can diversify a collection- vintage divers/sports watches have been done to death in watch media and collecting circles, but little attention seems to be paid to dressy tool watches like the Trainmaster. Rugged enough to withstand daily use, they’re a great potential vintage “everyday” watch you can wear with peace of mind. And with it on your wrist, you’ll always be “on the ball”.

Check out more of Evan’s reviews here

Check out the Ball website

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