A Box of Wonders in Your Pocket

Your modern quartz wristwatch rolls off the assembly lines in China or Taiwan or Japan or maybe the Philippines by the thousands, mass-produced in tremendous quantity and at comparatively little cost. It has relatively few moving parts, will probably never receive more service than the occasional new battery or band, and if at some point it stops working… repair? Nobody repairs watches anymore, except the high-end prestige “chronographs” from Switzerland; go buy a new watch.

A vintage pocket watch, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated…

Jeff Sexton has reproduced on his website a couple extracts from the newsletter of the Elgin National Watch Company, which succumbed to “progress” in 1968. Two of these should be required reading for anyone who loves old technology:

The Box of Wonders, Part 1, and
The Box of Wonders, Part 2.

(“The oil used in watches – or that which should be used – comes from a cavity in the jaw bone of the porpoise or the blackfish.” Urgh! Happily, everything today is synthetic.)

Jeff, by the way, is a true craftsman; not only is he one of the few people left able – and willing – to work on old mechanical American timepieces, but he does so with traditional, period tools and techniques; no “dip and dunk” in the ultrasonic cleaner for him!

I recently had him repair this interesting little oddity that I came across a while ago:

He was able to replace the broken pallet lever, as well as clean and overhaul the whole movement, in about two weeks, and at a much better price than anyone else I could find. (Not that there were actually a lot of people I could find willing to work on it, mind you…) I consider that particularly impressive when you consider that this isn’t actually a watch at all!

Oh, it might look like a pocket watch, and it might be mounted in a pocket watch case, but the first thing you probably notice about this is that it’s “upside down”, that is, the crown – the bit that winds and sets the movement – is at six o’clock, rather than twelve. It’s not a really special movement or anything; the seconds subdial is where you’d expect it, opposite the crown, after all. It’s only really the dial that’s “upside down”, a feature you see now and then on “nurse’s watches”, but not much else.

But, like I said, this isn’t actually a watch, or rather it wasn’t made as one. The movement in this watch was made in 1923 as a dashboard clock for an automobile. (It’s a 16s, 7j grade 480, if you’re a watch person who cares about these things.) It’s not exactly rare – about 196,000 of these things were made between 1922 and 1926 – and it’s not exactly a high-end mechanism, but I like it. Admittedly, today, when carrying any pocket watch is uncommon, it’s not hard to be “different”, but, let’s face it, carrying a dashboard clock in your pocket to tell time with is pretty unusual, no matter how you look at it. And, hey, the deco styling doesn’t hurt one bit. 🙂

If you’ve got an old mechanical American watch that needs some TLC, get in touch with Jeff Sexton. He’s an honest guy, does excellent work at a great price, and is one of the last people around who does things the old way.

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on May 11th, 2009| Comments Off on A Box of Wonders in Your Pocket

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