American system of watch manufacturing

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The American system of watch manufacturing is derived from the American system of manufacturing techniques, or "armory practices", that uses interchangeable parts made possible by a strict system of organization, the extensive use of the machine shop, and control systems utilizing gauges.[1] Watch repairman Aaron Lufkin Dennison was inspired by the manufacturing techniques of the United States Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. He proposed using similar techniques to manufacture watches, and in 1850, along with others, founded the Waltham Watch Company.[2]

American system of manufacturing[edit]

The American system of manufacturing by interchangeable parts meant the establishment of working facilities for the entire manufacturing process. Everything was made on Waltham company premises under direct supervision of the company's foreman, guided by the company standards on time, cleanliness, and care. Before the American system of watch manufacturing was developed, watchmaking was primarily a European business. It involved making certain parts under the roof of a factory while obtaining other parts from piece workers who used their own cottages as workshops.

While the American system of manufacturing was being developed, Waltham also invented, developed, and built its own production machinery. These early innovations led to the invention of special gauge systems that could adjust to smaller watch part dimensions, new alloys, and other materials.

Waltham Watch Company[edit]

The chronology of production phases at the Waltham Watch Company can be divided into three sections:

  • 1849-1857 Learning and Experimenting
  • 1858-1870 Refining and Gauging
  • 1871-1910 Automating and Factory Organization

Applying armory practices to the manufacturing of watches provided both opportunities and risks to the Waltham Watch Company. In terms of opportunity, the high price of watches allowed for a large investment in research and development, which was aimed toward the reduction of labor costs. At the time, a major factor behind watch prices was the cost of labor, so any system that significantly reduced labor costs would provide a substantial increase in profit.[3] Unfortunately, the goal of labor reduction proved elusive. In 1910, after 40 years of manufacturing improvements, labor still accounted for 80% of the cost of watches based on data from the Elgin National Watch Company.

Because watches require very strict production tolerances and very few manufacturing defects, it is hard to reduce labor costs. Other products made via armory practices, such as firearms and sewing machines, have tolerance levels of 10 to 100 times greater than those necessary for watchmaking[citation needed]. A watch gear that is offset by a few thousandths of an inch will create increased friction, reducing critical power needed for the balance wheel, and hence increase the wear of the watch[citation needed]. Before the armory practices were applied, watch manufacturing techniques required expert watchmakers to recognize slight variations in part sizes in order to place each gear in the correct location and to make other highly specialized adjustments during the manufacture of each watch[citation needed].

Beginning of standardized production[edit]

Henry and James F. Pitkin were employed in the manufacture of jewelry in Hartford, Connecticut in the mid-1830s. Their business failed as a result of the panic of 1837. The Pitkin brothers then turned their attention to the manufacture of watches. The brothers were able to construct rather crude machinery for the production of watches, particularly for the manufacture of pallets. The first movement was completed in 1838, and Crossman reported that between 800 and 900 watches in total were completed through 1845. Surviving examples of Pitkin watches showed that the parts were, in fact, interchangeable. This was contrary to what was reported by Crossman.

A few years later, a reputable clockmaker by the name of Edward Howard and the watch repairman, Aaron L. Dennison, formed plans to construct a watch with interchangeable parts based on Dennison's visit to the Springfield armory. The pair constructed a factory in Roxbury, with financial backing provided by Samuel Curtis and D.P. Davis (a partner of Howard in his clock business). This company initially operated under the name of the American Horologe Company but was quickly changed to the Warren Manufacturing Company to hide the purpose from foreign suppliers. The initial focus was on the production of an 8 day watch; however, this proved to be too expensive and not very accurate. Instead, the attention was turned to a 30 hour watch designed very similarly to what ultimately became the standard for an American 18 size watch. The first of these carried the serial number of 18, and was marked "Warren." This was completed in 1852. Approximately 80 "Warren" watches were produced, followed by about 900 marked "Samuel Curtis", and a further 4000 marked "Dennison, Howard, and Davis". The factory was moved to Waltham around 1857. The basic design of this watch was used for several years as the 1857 model Waltham.

Case back showing hinges waltham model 57 American made
Case back inside photo with halmark of the waltham watch company a model 57

In order to achieve strict tolerances, watch manufacturers largely manufactured their own machine tools and machine parts. Elgin manufactured almost two drill bits for each watch it manufactured. The knowledge of how to manufacture machines that could manufacture watches spread: from Waltham to Elgin and then to dozens of other American watch companies and manufacturers of other products. Techniques such as jigs, stops, and measuring devices on machines were not just refined, but other techniques were also developed. For example, statistical methods were used to reduce waste. If a gear staff (axle) and a jewel bearing hole were designed to be a given size, then the parts that most closely met those design goals were used in the highest grade watches, while staffs that were too large would be matched to watch jewels with holes that were too large. Together they could be used on lower grade watches.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Template:Hound shell 1984
  2. ^ Priestley, Philip: Aaron Lufkin Dennison, an industrial pioneer and his legacy, NAWCC, 2010.
  3. ^ Labor cost and profit variable



  • Crossman, Charles S. Compiled by Dawes, Donald A Complete History of Watch and Clockmaking in America (The Jewelers Circular and Horological Review)
  • Hoke, Donald Robert The Time Museum Historical Catalogue of American Pocket Watches (Time Museum Rockford, Illinois, U.S.A.)
  • Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press) ISBN 978-0-8018-2975-8

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°22′01″N 71°14′39″W / 42.3669°N 71.2442°W / 42.3669; -71.2442