1920 Howard Pocket Watch with Full Set

1920 Howard Full Set

When it comes to my personal collection, a full set is a must. I want boxes and papers to come with my watches. It drastically helps resale value, and many modern watch companies put a great deal into their packaging. Sometimes it can border on the obnoxious (take for example one of my Omega Speedmasters which you can read about here: http://www.fratellowatches.com/speedy-tuesday-omega-speedmaster-1957-50th-anniversary-2007/) but they sure as hell made sure I don’t lose the box.

The vintage pieces I restore however rarely have a box, let alone papers. This 1920 Howard I recently got in however had them and more. It even came with the original canvas bag labeled “Howard Watches.” Anything accompanying a pocket watch is rare, but a full set like this is insane. I had to buy it just because I wanted to see what a full set from this era felt like.

1920 Howard in Pouch 1920 Howard Papers

This particular Howard model is one of my favorite classic American pocket watches. While it is a beautiful and well-made movement there is nothing particularly fascinating it, except that one of favorite experiences in watchmaking was fixing my great grandfather’s pocket watch of the same caliber and era. Restoring pieces from the past (as I obviously can’t restore pieces from the future) is why I love doing this, and the time I was able to restore my own past was a feeling apart from any other.

Like many watches from the 20s and 30s, it was unfortunately marked with the telltale signs of “watchmakers” from the time. The Great Depression impacted watchmaking and watches in two ways. Firstly people tried to service watches themselves as the cost of a watchmaker may not have been affordable. Secondly, in an attempt to find any sort of work, people took to calling themselves “watchmakers” and “serviced” watches for very cheap. As a result of one or both of these things, there were scratches on the main plate that were caused by indelicately wedging the balance cock up with a screwdriver (and then some,) one of the case screws was broken, and there were some screws that fit, but didn’t match. The latter I was able to replace with spare parts I have. The case screw i couldn’t fix, and when fit, the balance cock fortunately covers up most of the damage done in the past.

1920 Howard Scratches

Like the Railroad Chronometer all the bridges are stamped with their serial numbers, and once again I was lucky to get a completely original piece. Back together with its box, matching papers, and canvas pouch, this is a great piece of history preserved in its entirety. Cared for properly, it will turn 100 years old soon with all the pieces it left the factory with.

1920 Howard Front 1920 Howard Serial number 1920 Howard Movement 1920 Howard Case Back 1920 Howard Open Back

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

(Image taken from: http://postalmuseumblog.si.edu/2013/04/the-great-kipton-train-wreck.html)

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:

(copied from: http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2009/01/making-trains-run-on-time.html)

  • 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