Webb C. Ball, Horologist
It's been quite a while since my last Ramblings so I apologize to my readers!
Many years ago, we started our business dealing in period American clocks and watches. After more than 40 years, they still represent a major segment of our inventory and the fascination with their beauty and mechanical ingenuity remains to this day.
The people comprising the world of horology and their contributions, struggles and relationships are a significant part of our industrial revolution and American prosperity through the 20th Century.
I have chosen to write about Webb C. Ball, a man who was celebrated for his contributions and who, to this day, holds an honorary place in the horological world. Amazingly, his name appears on many clocks and watches but he never produced one!
The Ball Watch Company, Cleveland, Ohio 1879-1962
Webb Clay Ball began his professional career fulfilling a 2 year apprenticeship as a watchmaker, developing a reputation for precision and accuracy. Afterwards, undecided about his work direction and needing money, he became a salesman for the (John C.) Deuber Watch Case Company of Canton, Ohio.
Their relationship would last and be of mutual benefit for many years. Viewed as a stepping stone, Ball was eager to learn other aspects of the watch industry. While working his territory for Deuber, he also looked for potentially successful places to establish a jewelry store. He soon found such a place in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1879, he purchased an interest in a store located on the corner of Seneca and Superior Streets, in the center of downtown. He became full owner in 1881. Today, a large cast iron street clock with "Webb Ball Co." inscribed, marks the location of the former store.
Ball established a good business reputation and was vigorously supportive of all things "Cleveland". Combined, these two virtues fostered a thriving business. In fact, business was so good, he added 2 stories to the existing 2 story building after only a few years. The new floors would house a watch and clock repair business and a jewelry manufactory. Unfortunately, his businesses came to a standstill in 1885 when downtown Cleveland was flooded after a severe storm. The building was water damaged and Ball filed for bankruptcy. Not to be defeated, he was able to settle with his creditors and the building was restored and his businesses reestablished.
Concurrently with his renewed business activity, two events occurred that would greatly further his career and ultimately change the rail service industry and railroad travel safety.
On April 18, 1891, two trains traveling eastbound and westbound respectively, on a single track , belonging to the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railways, collided head on in Kipton, Ohio. Serious wreckage, derailment, death and injury were the result. Reportedly, the accident occurred due to the inaccurate time on a train engineer's watch. He missed a scheduled siding pull-off and continued on his route. The other train engineer was unaware until it was too late. Regrettably, there were other accidents and close calls elsewhere as rail traffic continued to build on antiquated systems. At this time, each rail company had its own set of rules and standards.
The second milestone event, Ball's appointment by railroad officials as Chief Time Inspector, changed his life forever. He was appointed in July 1891, 3 months after the Kipton disaster, by railroad officials and was charged with establishing a standard for uniformity of railroad time and an inspection system to maintain it. When the system was finally in place, he became inspector of railroads with 125,000 miles of track in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Ball's business was in full swing again. Watch and clock repair was a lucrative portion of the business, resulting, in large part, from his newly added responsibility as inspector. He oversaw all six of the Cornelius Vanderbilt lines centered in Cleveland. These included, but were not limited to:
- Lake Shore and Michigan Southern
- New York, Chicago and St. Louis
- Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago
and St. Louis
- Lake Erie and Western
- Pittsburgh and Lake Erie
- West Shore and Canada Southern
It is estimated, he was responsible for the periodic inspection of over one million watches used in the railroad system. In 1908, which may have been a peak year, his company was inspecting 108 railroads with as many as 800 watches being tested or reconditioned at any given time. When watches were held in the shop, a railroad man was provided with a "loaner" until his watch was returned,
To facilitate inspections, Ball appointed qualified watch "examiners" in local jewelry stores in railroad towns. At one time, there were 2000 "examiners".
Webb C. Ball was not the only chief time inspector. Railroad companies serving other regions across the country also recognized the need to address the problem and were adopting similar if not identical, standards and practices. It is Ball, however, who was universally recognized as being the most successful.
The railroads voluntarily adopted Standard Time in 1883 using Western Union time signals from the National Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. . It was not until March 18, 1918 that Congress passed the Standard Time Act requiring that it be used nationwide.
All timepieces, watches and clocks, essential to rail services operations and scheduling within Ball's jurisdiction, were subject to strictly managed quality and performance standards. An inspection was required every two weeks and twice a year for a complete overhaul when needed. Watches used by "on duty" engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors were required to be certified as well as those used by "on the ground" yard masters, dispatchers and signalmen. Each had to have on hand their officially certified inspection verification card. Clocks in stations, substations, control centers had to be inspected and certified also.
The name "Webb C. Ball" or "Ball Watch Co." Cleveland appearing on dials and movements signified that the timepiece met the Ball specifications, kept accurate time and was durable. It is, therefore, understandable that these timepieces are among the most sought after by collectors.
Since Ball did not manufacture any of these watches and clocks, where did they come from? Simply put, Ball contracted with leading American watch and clock companies, such as, Hamilton, Elgin, Illinois and Waltham to make movements and cases (Dueber was a major supplier of cases) according to the strict standards he had established. Following manufacture, all pieces passed through his shop for assembly or inspection prior to sale. In this way, his objective to make railroads safer was satisfied without getting directly involved with competitive and economic uncertainties of the industry, and, of course, was the most lucrative for Ball.
Webb C. Ball died in 1922 in Cleveland. The business continued until 1962, managed by various family members and associates.
Your comments are most welcome.
NAWCC (National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors), Bulletins # 129, 144, 184, 310*
* Recognition of Robert P. Wilson's article, "Webb C. Ball Railroad Watch Inspection System"
Numerous Google searches.
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