The Truth About The Ball Railway Watch


Kipton train crash

According to most historic accounts, the railroad watch was born on April 18, 1891. On that day a fast mail train collided with the Toledo Express at Kipton Station, 40 miles west of Cleveland, Ohio. The head-on collision destroyed both engines, three mail cars and one baggage car. Both engineers and six postal clerks died. According to the Bismarck Daily Tribune North Dakota. . .

Bodies were all horribly crushed and mutilated, arms and legs being torn off, and corpses were almost beyond recognition.

CHARLES TOPLIFF, the engineer of the fast mail, was found with his hand on the throttle, dead. His hands and face were so badly scalded that blackened flesh dropped from his bones when his body was taken out.

Fireman STEALY of the fast mail jumped from the train and died soon afterwards. The postal clerks had not a chance to escape, they were caged like rats and the telescoping cars crushed the life out of them without a moment’s warning.

Back view Kipton train wreck

Historians blame the engineer’s pocket watch for the collision. Here’s a typical account:

From the time the train left Elyria until it collided with the Fast Mail at Kipton, the conductor [Daly], as he admitted afterward, did not take his watch out of his pocket. He said that he supposed the engineer [Bacon] 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.

Kipton train depot

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. 

There’s no question that the Toledo Express was supposed to be on a siding to let the fast mail train pass. The mystery: was a defective or poorly maintained pocket watch really to blame for the carnage?

Kipton Train Wreck 4

According to the official report by Hon. T. A. Norton, Commissioner of Railroads and Telegraphs, the trains collided sometime between 4:52 and 4:54 P.M. Here’s his account of Engineer Bacon’s watch:

On April 22, four days after the accident occurred, engineer Bacon’s watch was found by one of the section men while clearing away rubbish a little east of the passenger station at Kipton. It showed that it had stopped at 4:41 ½ . I was informed that it was not run down and as to whether it was stopped before the train left Oberlin or from some cause at the time of the collision I cannot say.

Kipton train wreck leads to railway watch

At no point does Mr. Norton say anything about Mr. Bacon’s watch stopping and restarting. Mr. Norton says that either the Toledo Express’ conductor and engineer miscalculated their progress, disregarding established regulations, or “their watches must have been wrong.”

Both engineers died in the crash, so there was no way to know what role Mr. Bacon’s pocket watch played in the tragedy. If any. But it’s certainly true that bad timekeeping caused many a fatal train crash. Here are some examples via . .

August 9, 1853  – Camden & Amboy Old Bridge, New Jersey – 4 killed Engineer’s watch 2.5 minutes slow
August 12, 1853 – Providence & Worcester Valley Falls, Rhode Island 14 killed Conductor’s watch 2 minutes slow
August 1878 – Panhandle Mingo Junction, Ohio 18 killed Conductor’s watch 20 minutes slow
November 1882 – Illinois & St. Louis Belleville, Illinois 2 killed watch 54 minutes slow
November 1893 – Hocking Valley Bradner, Ohio 4 killed Engineer’s watch 17 minutes slow

Notice the last watch-related accident happened after the collision of 1891. Kipton marked a turning point in railway safety – thanks in large part to a watchmaker turned pocket watch case salesman turned Cleveland jewelry store owner named Webster Clay Ball.

Railway watch - Ball Jewelers

After the Kipton crash, in anticipation of the split-second timing needed for a new “high speed ” 25-hour Chicago-to-New York rail service, the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway appointed Mr. Ball their “Chief Time Inspector.” It was not Mr. Ball’s first such assignment, but it was by far the most important.

Antique Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway map

By his own account, Mr. Ball spent four months studying the extensive Railway’s timekeeping system. He was appalled by the dangerous lack of uniformity across the network.

I found that the conductors on the freight train of trunk lines were depending on cheap alarm clocks hung on nails In their cabooses. Many merchants at that period were giving away bad watches with suits of clothing and furnishing goods, and engineers and conductors had such watches in their pocket, and were actually running trains by them, to the menace of human life and property. Some of the clocks in roundhouses and in train dispatchers’ offices hadn’t been cleaned, or regulated for years. 

Drawing on his watchmaking experience, Mr. Ball devised a now-famous set of standards  for an acceptable railway pocket watch. It had to . . .

    • Be open face (no lid over the dial), size 18 or 16 (Lancashire Gauge for measuring watches, as measured at the dial plate, size 18 equals 1 23/30″ or 44.86 mm, size 16 equals 1 11/16″ or 43.18 mm)
    • Have a pain white dial, bold black hands and bold Arabic numbers
    • Have the winding stem at 12 o’clock
    • Be lever set (to set the time, the case had to be opened and a lever pulled out, to prevent an accidental change)
    • Have a minimum of 17 jewels, a double roller, steel escape wheel, micrometric regulator and grade on the back plate
    • Be adjusted to at least five positions (stem up, left side up, right side up, face up and face down)
    • Temperature compensated for 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit
    • Keep time accurately to plus or minus 30 seconds a week.

Two years later, Mr. Ball’s strictures were codified in the General Railroad Timepiece Standards and disseminated to railway companies across America.

There were railway pocket watch standards before Mr. Ball put pen to paper. And many American railroads didn’t adopt his guidelines for a decade. But over time, collectors and historians came to see Mr. Ball’s 1893 standards as the starting point of the ultra-reliable “railway watch.”

The publication also marked the beginning of Webb C. Ball’s railway pocket watch empire.

Railway watch - Web C. Ball's stationary 2

Ball built an organized watch inspections system which grew into the Ball Railroad Time Service to ensure watch accuracy on a number of railroads. The actual inspectors were the same jewelers who were Ball Watch Co. dealers to whom Ball was distributing watches and jewelry.

Mr. Ball not only set and enforced railway watch standards, he started a watch company to supply pocket watches to the market he serviced through his exclusive contracts. A network that grew to include multiple railways across the entire West, up into Canada and down into Mexico.

[The conflict of interest was not lost on the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. In 1898, 80 percent of their members signed a petition demanding they be allowed to buy a less expensive watch of their choice, rather than a timepiece approved by Ball’s inspectors (i.e., Ball Co. Watches). Mr. Ball played the “safety first” card and nothing came of the protest.]

Railway watch - Ball Hamilton

The Ball Watch Co. didn’t make pocket watches. It branded and sold timepieces manufactured by eight different American manufacturers –  including Hampden, Elgin, Hamilton and Waltham – nestling in watch cases by Wadsworth, Dueber and Keystone.

Ball Watch Co. railway watch movement

Ball watches sported a custom enamel dial and damasking pattern on the movements. It’s likely Ball’s suppliers modified the railway watches to incorporate Ball branding before shipping them to Cleveland – where a dedicated team of employees tested and adjusted the pocket watches to make sure they met the boss’s high standards.

Railway watch - Safeguard Millions!

Ball also marketed his trademark “Official RR Standard” pocket watches to the general public. The move stepped on his suppliers’ toes. But they couldn’t risk losing the Ball Watch Co.’s enormous purchase orders.

Buoyed by its safety-focused advertising, Ball watches and accuracy quickly became synonymous – to the point where “on the Ball” became [and remains] an expression for someone doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

The Ball Watch Company thrived. By 1908, some 2000 Ball-authorized watch inspectors/dealers checked and serviced over a million watches for 180 railroads. Mr. Ball became a national figure.

Webb C. Ball interview

In January 1910, Mr. Ball granted an interview to the New York Tribune.

It was here – nineteen years after the Kipton crash – that Mr. Ball publicly mooted the unproven, highly improbable but not entirely impossible idea that Engineer Bacon’s pocket watch stopped and then restarted, leading to the Kipton crash. A suggestion that captured the public’s imagination and became accepted “fact.”

Trib readers also learned that the Lorain County, Ohio coroner called Mr. Ball as an expert witness at a court case held after the initial report was issued. He also says “the case was finally carried into the United States Court in Toledo, and I went there several times to testify.”

Ball railway watch

I can’t find a record of the case in question. After reading the full accident report, I reckon the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway stood accused of negligence. If so, Ball’s testimony – the pocket watch caused the crash! – saved Railway executives from criminal prosecution and protected their financial interests.

Again, this is speculation. But there’s no doubt that Mr. Ball’s testimony solidified his relationship with the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway. By his account, he sealed the deal to inspect their timekeeping system on a return journey from Toledo with the Railway reps. This turn-of-events formed the foundation of Mr. Ball’s pocket watch and railroad clock fortune.


Mr. Ball is generally credited for standardizing watches and clocks on America’s railroads, saving countless lives. In fact, he was only one of many “Time Inspectors” (including other jewelers) who sourced and maintained accurate and reliable pocket watches for tens of thousands of railway workers, both well before and long after Kipton.

Mr. Ball’s historic fame stems from the myth surrounding the Ohio train tragedy and the mistaken view that the jeweler was a cutting edge innovator. Even so, you can’t argue with Mr. Ball’s assessment of his impact on American watchmaking.

“Watches were never so cheap as now and never so accurate,” Mr. Ball told The Trib. “I am sure that the standards I have established for railroad purposes have greatly helped to bring the American watch to its present state of regularity and precision.”

[Hat tip to NAWCC member Robert P. Winslow for his no-holds-barred history of Webster Clay Ball’s life and times.]


      • Why there are pages and pages of Rolexes available online and yet prices are still high and above retail. This makes no sense. The supply exceeds the demand.

      • Hello this Don Barrett returning a phone message you left at our store City Bank Antiques regarding Ball watches. I tried calling you, but could not leave a message! You may call me at my office at 330 677 1914. Great article, and thank you!

  1. Buoyed by its safety-focused advertising, Ball watches and accuracy quickly became synonymous – to the point where “on the Ball” became [and remains] an expression for someone doing what they’re supposed to be doing.’ I believe this is incorrect. According to multiple sources, the phrase originated with sports involving a ball, particularly baseball. Another suggested origin is the ball at Greenwich Observatory that falls at precisely 1300 hours so that ships’ captains could set their chronometers. It certainly originated with sport, with keeping one’s eye on the ball’ is attested in print referring to a game of rounders in 1864.

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