The Forgotten History of Chronometer Standards (Howard Series 11 Circa 1918)

Howard RR Chronometer Feature

Today the word “Chronometer” is associated almost exclusively with Swiss timepieces. The COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres) has managed to monopolize the word (among other things) but many may not know that the standards were actually formalized by Webster C. Ball in America in the 1890s. Nearly 80 years before COSC and about 30 years before the Société Suisse de Chronométrie the specifications for a chronometer were set up in America. They were changed very little and rebranded the Swiss standard. This re-appropriation glosses over the tragic history that led to the regulations that have defined the chronometer for nearly a century.

All too often great change comes about through tragedy. Chronometry is unfortunately in this category. In 1891, mail train #14 collided with the Toledo Express at Kipton Station in Ohio. The impact occurred close to where the Toledo Express would normally have pulled on to a side-track to allow the passage of the much smaller and faster mail train. Nine men were killed in the accident. The believed cause was a pocket watch that was four minutes slow.

train wreck

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In reaction to this incident, Webster Ball, an Ohio jeweler was assigned to investigate and this led to the Railroad Chronometer Standards of 1893.

The standards were as follows:

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  • Only American-Made watches may be used
  • Open-faced dials with the stem at 12 o’clock
  • Minimum of 17 functional jewels
  • Maximum variation of 30 seconds per weekly check (+/-4 sec/day)
  • Adjusted to at least 5 positions
  • Adjusted for heat and cold and isochronism
  • Indications with large bold Arabic numerals, outer minute division, second dial, heavy hands
  • Breguet overcoil
  • Micrometer adjustment regulator
  • Double roller
  • Steel escape wheel
  • Anti-magnetic protection
  • Jim-proof
  • Lever set (this is a pain, but ensures the stem can’t be left out or the time accidentally changed)

While the Swiss clearly removed some of the above requirements, many are strikingly similar to today’s standards. Very shortly after these standards were published, almost every American watch manufacturer complied. This time period produced some of the most accurate (and beautiful) movements in American horology. One of the most popular ones used was the E.Howard Series 11. After a long time of searching, I pulled the trigger and found one I wanted to service.

Howard RR Chronometer Movement 2

One thing that is particularly important with these older pocket watches is to check the condition of the lettering on the plates (and the paint still in them.) If the letters are fully intact it is generally a sign that the watch has not been over-serviced, poorly serviced, or mechanically cleaned (modern methods tend to remove this detail.) Secondly, I made sure the dial had no hairline cracks. Howard watches tend to suffer badly from these as the dial is snapped on rather than screwed in place. This means that the process of removing the dial is a very delicate one requiring care and patience. Railroad dials also tend to suffer from wear because of the lever set mechanism. This mechanism requires that the glass be removed and a lever pulled up to set the time. In doing so, the dials were constantly exposed to the elements and as a result finding mint ones are tough.

Howard RR Chronometer Full Dial Howard RR Chronometer Lever

This watch was about as close to perfect as I wanted. When it arrived I put it on the timing machine and found it was running over 2 minutes fast per day so I set about servicing it. After full disassembly I noticed some features that make these watches what they are. Every bridge, plate, and cock is stamped with the serial number to preserve and verify the originality of the piece. Fortunately all of these matched. Another rarely seen feature these have are adjustable banking pins. Without getting technical this is an interesting feature that allows for fine-tuning of the escapement.

Howard RR Chronometer Movement Parts

After a very meticulous hand cleaning, reassembly, oiling, and regulating, this legendary piece is running as it should. The shape of this watch after nearly 100 years is insane. This is a watch that was cared for and will last another 100 years in good hands. It is a stunning example from the Golden Age of American horology that represents a forgotten tragedy and the birth of the world standards for chronometry.

Howard RR Chronometer Front Howard RR Chronometer Caseback

Howard RR Chronometer MovementHoward RR Chronometer Caseback 2

Omega Seamaster “Pre-Bond” Caliber 1111 (ETA 2892-2)

Omega Pre-Bond Feature

In an earlier post, I discussed my general aversion to wearing metal bracelets on a watch for a prolonged period of time. This most recent watch provides an all too common example of everything I described in that post. Band aside however, this is a great vintage Omega that was in dire need of some TLC.

A friend of mine complained that his watch was running fast and that the band pins kept coming out. The problem had gotten so bad that he could no longer wear the watch. I took the watch in and got to work on it. First I fully disassembled the movement to check for wear and damage. Fortunately only two pieces needed to be swapped out. The gear that transmits power from the rotor to the mainspring and the bearings that the rotor revolves around had never been replaced since this watch was purchased in the 80s. As a result they had experienced significant wear and needed to be replaced.

After a full cleaning, reassemble, and regulation the watch was running back within chronometer specs. Even knowing the timing read out, the timing machine can only tell you half the story, and after its run and regulation on it I put it on a final test winder. It ran perfectly through its power reserve but the problem appeared to be that it would not wind itself at all. I removed the caseback and noticed a problem: the retaining ring that connects the rotor to its bearings was off its track. As a result the rotor was not turning properly. After correcting the problem, I put it back on the winder only to find the same problem again. This time however, the ring had come off entirely. This time my solution was to buy the proper tool to secure the ring. As soon as it arrived, I secured the ring properly and sure enough it solved the problem and the watch is running and winding perfectly.

Omega Pre-Bond Movement Assembly 1 Omega Pre-Bond Movement Assembly 2 Omega Pre-Bond Movement Assembly 3



Next I got to the band. The time on the winder had caused the loose pins to jut out just a bit. I removed these one by one and replaced them with pressure pins. Although this did not decrease the give in the band, it made sure that my friend could wear it with a bit less fear of it falling off. This is unfortunately just a temporary solution. Once the metal stretches, it is almost impossible to get it to stop. Using ever so slightly larger retaining pins will only work until the metal stretches out some more. There are really just two long-term solutions: get a leather band made for it, or track down another better condition band. Neither of these options are cheap, but they can increase the wearability by decades.

The piece itself is famously known as the Seamaster 200m “Pre-Bond.” This name came because the next Seamaster model was featured as James Bond’s watch in Goldeneye in 1995. Fitted with an ETA 2892-2 (or Omega 1111) Chronometer movement, this watch is a solidly built piece even though it is not one of the old-school in-house Omega movements that I love. It is still a well-engineered and very intuitively designed movement, allowing for simple assembly (and plenty of readily available parts if needed.)

All back together, it is running well and the band will hold together. That being said, I was unable to do much to improve the external condition except for a cleaning. Most importantly however, for its owner, a very sentimental piece is wearable and running well.

Omega Pre-Bond Side Omega Pre-Bond Buckle Omega Pre-Bond Back Omega Pre-Bond Crown Omega Pre-Bond Flat