On the Ball by George Wolff

The Complete History of the Legendary Ball Timepiece and the Man Behind the Legend

The railroads were very important in the US. It was an achievement in the 19th century. The founder of Ball kept time. Without good time, railroad accidents might happen. An accident in 1891 prompted Webb C. Ball to act. He emphasized on keeping precise time and created railroad grade timepieces. He was an entrepreneur and started a watch company. Ball watches are known for their visual simplicity, elegance and precision. This book is dedicated to his achievements.

Early Times. He was a true blue entrepreneur. The Ball family predecessors arrived in America at around 1650 from England. His family history traced back to the 1600s. Zenas was his grandfather and he was obsessed with watches and even sold one at a profit. Ball often advertises that their family history had people who were interested in watches all along. Webster Clay Ball was born in 1847. His grandpa donated land and made Webb C. Ball go to school. They were also quite close personally. Webb started out working in a farm. He liked machinery since young. He was good at make handicrafts since young. Later, he learnt to engrave on coins. Later, he worked as an apprentice in a jewellery company. Wages were low and life was tough. After a while, he worked as a watchmaker at Whitcomb and Metten. After amassing his skills, he started his own company. He kept writing to bigger watch players and wanted greater opportunities.

When it was noon in Chicago it was 12:31 in Pittsburgh, 12:24 in Cleveland, 12:17 in Toledo, 12:13 in Cincinnati, 12:09 in Louisville, 12:07 in Indianpolis, 11:50 in St. Louis, 11:48 in Dubuque, 11:41 in St Paul and 11:27 in Omaha. – Pence James, Train Magazine

Some say the secret of success is to be in the right place at the right time. Others say the secret is to be prepared with the right skills when the opportunity comes. – Unknown

Building the Foundation. Industrialisation was big in the US in the 19th century. Railroads were a hallmark of it. People were also driven and hardworking by then. Later, he worked at Bowler and Burdick, a wholesale jeweller. He was a travelling salesman. Railroads often didn’t keep to time. Later on, Webb wanted to sell watch cases. This was revolutionary. Webb was 32 in 1879. It was in Cleveland. Webb purchased a partnership at a small jewellery store. Many railroad men became his customers. Webb became renowned in Ohio. His wife, Florence, helped to take care of the accounts. Finally, Webb bought out Whitcomb’s interest in the business and Ball Watch Company was founded. Ball set his time according to astronomical standards. Ball fought for the concept of standard time. Even in 1 town, there were multiple time zones and it was very confusing. Standard Time was introduced in 1883. Many people relied on church bells to tell the time. Finally, standard time was the legal time in Ohio. Finally, it was in 1918, when standard time was passed in the Standard Time Act. This synchronization would apply throughout the US. This was a ground-breaking change at that time. Webb also introduced a chronometer grade watch. The stage was set. Ball earned the respect of those in the industry.

Disaster and Opportunity. The railroad engineer was a glamorous but dangerous job back then. The pocket watch he had was often not accurate. There was only 1 track and if trains were heading in opposite directions, one would have to be housed temporarily in a siding. However, without precise time, accidents were inevitable. Insurance was no excuse too. On Apr 19, 1891, disaster struck. Engineers and firemen died in that accident. More than 9 were dead. Ball knew the consequence of poor timekeeping. Webb was already 60 then. The incident took 4 months to investigate fully. Ball revealed his ground-breaking ideas to all. He soon realized that there was no stable time in different times/cities. The average man was still resistant to standardization. Some of the watches could simply stop when they were placed in a particular position and the owner might not realize it. They were not positional-ly adjusted. The watch only had flat hairsprings and defective mainsprings. Ball wanted all watches to be inspected before they could be used. Watches that lost 30 seconds every 2 weeks would have to be regulated. Because of him, countless of railroad accidents were prevented.

What I wish to establish is the fact that a watch as the expressor of time, measured in atoms, does in fact co-ordinate impulse and caution and is productive of a greater degree of self-preservation. – Webb C. Ball

The engineer, the conductor liked to compare their watches. Safety was paramount now. Accuracy was important. Good watches need regular maintenance. The watch inspection business was growing. The time service operations were soon expanded to 200,000 miles of track. He was a humble man and didn’t see himself as great. Ball also faced competition from other time inspectors. He knew about the competition but continued to persevere. His employees included engineers, conductors, firemen etc. Also, he focussed more on marketing than his competitors. However, some time inspectors were profit driven and often declared that the watches were not functioning so that they could sell the train people more watches. Ball encouraged peace and goodwill between watch inspectors and railroad employees. Ball ensured that the employees could get a loaned watch while his watch was being serviced. All that helped to build Ball’s competitive advantage in the market. Some employees purposely set their watch to accurate time before the inspection. Ball appealed to their integrity. It wasn’t easy for the inspectors, as they often had to brave the rough elements in the train. Ball often pumped money to keep his operations in order.

The nicest way to win a man’s confidence is to show him that you are patient with him, that you will give him a square deal. That is what all the railroad boys want, is courtesy, and patience and a square deal, and with that kind of treatment you will have no trouble handling the watch inspection service to your advantage. – Webb C. Ball

A watch actually has a direct psychological effect on the individual who carries it. A man and his watch go through life together, he is more associated with it “the companion of his working and sleeping hours” than which any other mechanical object. – Unknown

What drove Webb? Webb liked things of beauty. He changed the form and function of watches too. One could not operate a train service by maxims. People used inferior watches because they were cheaper. Expensive watches could cost up to a few month’s salary back then. Watches were required to have 15 jewels and a patent regulator. Creating a new standard was a labor of love for Ball. He studied watches and even those made in Europe. He wanted to create a unique design. Ball applied for patents as well. He made watches with a ‘Railroad’ standard. Watches were tested under different temperature conditions and also under isochronism. The ornate cover had to be removed. More money would be spent on the movement. Ball detested watches with tiny markings and delicate hands. Dials should be plain. Round dots were most visible in poor light. Large Arabic numerals should line the face of the watch, along with the round dots above it. Initially, they were against watches with excessive jewels because Ball thought that they didn’t serve any function. Ball called for double roller escapement etc. Ball subjected his watches to intense scrutiny. More importantly, Ball’s watches saved lives. The Howard Ball is a very collectable watch indeed. Hamilton and other brands also produced Ball watches back then. Later on, Ball embraced the 21 or 23 jewel watches. Much later, Ball produced more fancy looking watches.

Winning Watches. The company’s sales improved. Their cash flow ballooned. The numbers told the tale in the early 1910s. Their success made others jealous. People accused him of running a monopoly. Ball continued building relationships with people in the railroad industry. The logos were trademarked as well. Ball was a very competitive man. Inferior watches were banned from railroad property. Ball constantly improved their watch quality and ensured safety. He was also a very modest man. Also, he had great leadership qualities. Many soldiers during WWI wore cheap watches. Soldiers could wear their own watches. Soldiers died because of unreliable timing. Ball helped to make and order pocket watches to soldiers. The maximum deviation allowed was 30 seconds per week. Ball was commissioned by the government to produce watches for the American army. Sidney Y. Ball was Webb’s son and he took over the company during the WWII. The watch has reached a very high standard nowadays. The quality has developed over time. Give your watch the necessary attention and care. The market for watches kept growing. Watch manufacturers were also producing many different watch grades and it made standardization difficult. Later, only two grades were allowed (either 21 or 23 jewel). Streamlining was necessary. Webb C. Ball passed away in 1922. He had lived respectably and had a great reputation in the watch industry.

Notice the busy little balance wheel flying to and fro unceasingly day and night, year in and year out; 18,000 beats per hour; 432,000 per day; 12,960,000 in 30 days; 157,680,000 in 1 year. It travels one and forty three one-hundredths inches with each vibration which is equal to 3,558.75 miles in one year. – Charles T. Jenkins

Ball set the standard for railroad clocks. Later on, electric clocks were developed.

A watch is more than pieces of material and wheels assembled, and functioning through the power of the main spring. It is an embodied directing companion, and, while it cannot articulate like humans do, it speaks with its hands words of caution and unmistakable plainness. – Ball Archives

The Ball Tradition lives on!



2 thoughts on “On the Ball by George Wolff

  1. Pingback: Review of the Ball SG50 Fireman Night Train | Book & Quote Monster

  2. Pingback: Review of the Ball SG50 Fireman Night Train | Book & Quote Monster

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