Why do, or did, conductors carry pocket watches?

From what I’ve heard wristwatches became popular after the First World War, and you’d think that passenger train conductors, what with having to walk around carrying the ticket punch and what-all, would have been among the first to switch to wristwatches. So why is it that the pocket watch remains one of their traditional accoutrements? Seems to me on my last train trip I saw a conductor with a pocket watch.

WAG But I would guess that it is tradition.


Up until the introduction of battery-powered quartz watches, timekeeping accuracy was measured in minutes per month, not seconds per millenium. A friend of mine who works for the Union Pacific tells me that even today train crews, station masters and the like still must carry watches that have been certified for railroad use.

Pocket watches were larger than wristwatches, and in the old jewel-and-gear days, were able to be machined to much finer tolerances and be more accurate. A wristwatch which could maintain that degree of accuracy probably would cost comparable to today’s Rolexes.

wrt Rolexes, since posting my infamous Rolex thread last month, I’ve learned that they were pretty much the pioneers in the wrist watch field.

In the UK at least,until the coming of the railways, every town had its own time.There being no “standard time”. This made it impossible to have an accurate time table. To get round this when a train left London The conductor took a pocket watch,set to London time, and this was used to set the clocks in all the towns down the line. This was known as “Railway Time”. Then with the coming of the electric telegraph the same could be achieved without the use of the watch.

David has got the gist of it. In the glory days of steam locomotives, the conductor’s cradle, as it were. Imagine running a train system that did not adhere to rigid and accurate schedules. Having a train idled in a station solely so that a few passengers, on a late train, may connect with it and you begin to get the idea.

Late trains cause pure mayhem for such an energy and capital intensive venture as commercial mass transportation. Please remember that all of this “tradition” came to pass when the only alternative transportation was horse drawn. The advent of inexpensive time pieces, air transport and automobiles has reduced the significance of this once crucial feature of railways.

I hope to post a further comment here once I get to my watch books at work on Tuesday.

IN the meantime, David Cronan was right and this interesting link will summarize how standard time came into being–without the US Government !

My father worked for the RF&P Railroad for 45 years, staring right of high school in 1952. The first requirment for his job was to buy a Hamilton Railroad Watch, which had to be certified as accurate every other month by a jeweler. The conductor could, at his discretion, ask to see your watch. If it was not in synch with his, to the second, he could dock your pay. It cost him $99.99 (I’ve still got the box and price tag). He gave me the watch for Xmas a couple of years ago. The best damned present I ever received.

There is a plaque commemorating the 83 General Time Convention in Chicago (not “Chicano”). It’s on the N side of Jackson, I believe on the SW corner of the Continental (MidAmerica)Bank Building, which would put it on the NE corner of Jackson and LaSalle. It might be one block west on the Federal Reserve Bank.