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The story of the Ball Watch brand – A watch company that didn't miss a train

Tags: About the brand | Ball | Classic | Traditional

12.7.2021 | 13 MIN | 1x comment

The name is literally asking for puns. Ball. Not everyone knows this brand, but those who do, know that those are watches that have balls... Where did they come from, what makes them unique today and why they are worth your time, attention and money? Those are the questions I am going to tell you about today.

How did Ball come to the Rail Road

Nowadays, we sometimes complain about the futility of daylight saving time, but in the United States in 19th century it was a complete wilderness. Cities maintained their de facto own time, usually according to the position of the Sun. People then adjusted their times according to the local bell tower with a clock or clocks displayed in the goldsmiths' shop window. In short, each village, a different time. While in Chicago it was 12:10, in the neighboring town it was only 11:53. And a city further said it was 12:17.

And the same also applied to railway companies. When the train left the city at exactly noon and its journey was supposed to take, let's say, 45 minutes, it theoretically arrived at the destination station at 12:45. But there was a different time in the destination city, so it may have just happened that you missed the train.

Noon was most often determined by when the Sun being in its highest position. But that could be quite different in cities miles apart from each other. And with that, so was the time.

It hasn't been really a problem before rail transport started and expanded. Nobody really cared if you arrived at noon or afternoon with your carriage. But the modernization of transport and communications increasingly required better synchronization. The driving force for the change were fatal accidents on the track caused by each locomotive operator having different time.

And while in England, they all swiched to the standard Greenwich Mean time in 1847, Americans waited until much later.

Charles F. Dowd was the first to design the National Time System for Railways in the early 1970s. Dowd had actually nothing to do with the railroads. His system was based on the Greenwich Mean Time, but it was supposed to be valid only for railways, local times would remain unchanged.

However, the U.S. Railroad organization feared government influence over the adoption of the standard timetable. Plus it would probably make even bigger mess. But the thought was given to be investigated to William Frederick Allen, the editor of the Official Guide to the Railways and eventually Secretary of the General Time Convention.

Allen suggested the introduction of five time zones for railways, with cities adapting it voluntarily but in their own interest. Greenwich Mean Time was used as a basis and the proposal was accepted by the railway managers.

The introduction of standard railway time took place on November 18, 1883 at noon. However, the railway company on the east coast of Canada did not accept the proposal, so in the end only four zones were introduced. Even so, it was a crucial step towards smoother interstate trasportation.

Zóny USA byly založeny na slunečním poledni při 75, 90, 105 a 120 stupních západně od Greenwiche.

US zones were established at sunny noon at 75, 90, 105 and 120 degrees west of Greenwich.

The civilian population did indeed gradually switch to standard railway time, but what is interesting is that the standard time was not approved by Congress until the 1918 Act. Until then, if you wanted to know the exact time, all you had to do was ask the railway worker.

Maybe the introduction seems a bit stretched and the name Ball hasn't even been heard yet. But it is an important example of how delicately the world of time and railways has been connected. It is no exaggeration to say that we are indebted to railway transport for a unified time and the effort to constantly maintain it with maximum accuracy. But now let's move on to Mr. Ball.

The exact time was provided by the national observatories and communicated to the people by telegraph. In Clevelend, Ohio, a local jeweler, Webster Clay Ball, also helped to keep the right time. As a first one to do so, he placed a chronometer in the window of his goldsmith's shop showing the exact time provided by the Washington Observatory.

Webster C. Ball was born in Fredericktown, Ohio on October 6, 1847. He was a well-known jeweler in Clevelend, but otherwise he had no greater ambition to become a world watchmaker. The fact that he went down in the history of watchmaking and railways was in fact caused by one specific train collision.

The accident took place on April 19, 1891 in Kipton, Ohio. It claimed several casualties, and the investigation proved the inaccuracy of one of the drivers' pocket watch to be the main cause.  Unaware that his watch had stopped for four minutes and then started working again, he drove slowly, thinking he had plenty of time before reaching the point of the meet.

Based on this accident, which was not the only one, the railway company Lake Shore Lines decided to have new standards developed for watches of its railway employees. And they entrusted this task to Webb Ball. On July 19, 1891, he was appointed overseer and guardian of time for the Cleveland area.

Ball applied himself extremely conscientiously to this task. Aware of railway safety, he developed a system of strict standards for watches, including a list of approved watches.

„I am sure that the standards I have established for railroad purposes have greatly helped to bring the American watch to its present state of regularity and precision, which is good for a man who stays at home but is infinitely better for a man who travels. " Webb Ball

His instructions included the appearance of the watch, robustness, accuracy requirements and, above all, a sophisticated system for inspecting the watch at two-week intervals, including accurate inspection records.

Inspections could only be carried out by approved watchmakers, and thus began an extensive network of inspections established by Ball: Ball Railroad Time Service. According to official sources, Ball soon covered 75% of the country's rail network.

„No one will ever know how many people have been killed because of worthless watches. In the old days, there was no attempt at time inspections, the causes of accidents were covered up or denied. Only recently several persons were killed in a collision because the engineer was running his train by a watch borrowed that morning from a female member of his household." Webb Ball

Ball's system was accepted by many watch companies and they began to manufacture their watches according to him. And not just those American ones (for which the railways were an important market) like Waltham Watch, Hamilton, Elgin, Aurora and others, but with time even some Swiss brands including Audemars Piguet, Longines, Vacheron Constantin. Many American watches that met the conditions were given a RR (Rail Road) stamp and were distributed by the Ball Watch Company.

Hodinky Ball & Co. (cca 1983) a distribuované hodinky s pečetí BALL Watch Co. (cca 1922).

Ball & Co. Watch (circa 1983) and a watch distributed with a BALL Watch Co.  stamp (circa 1922).

Of course, Webb Ball was not the only one to provide or set criteria for the railway companies. Many companies had their own control systems and differed in requirements. But Ball's company was, at the time, the strictest and also probably the most elaborate one. So it was not a surprise that when the Railway Standards Commission introduced the requirements for railway workers' watches in 1893, they were based on Ball's system (and, by the way, also became the basis for the Swiss institute COSC).

The main requirements on the watches of railway workers who influenced the running of trains included:

  • Open face watches, size 18 (44,86 mm) or 16 (43,18 mm)
  • Plain white dial, bold black hands, and bold black Arabic numbers
  • A winding stem at 12 o’clock
  • Have a minimum of 17 jewels
  • Adjusted to minimum five positions (stem up, left side up, right side up, face up and face down)
  • Adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (up to 37.8°C)
  • A variation not exceedin 30 seconds a week

These criteria have been accepted by most railway companies. Of course, the requirements evolved over time. For example, with the arrival of diesel locomotives in the 1940s, an antimagnetic hair was required in watches. It is interesting that although after the World War I, and especially in the 1930s, there was a growing interest in wristwatches, while pocket watches remained almost the only approved watch on the railways until the late 1950s.

As a few examples from the approved wristwatches, there interesting models such as Accutron from Bulova, or the first electric watch Hamilton 505. And, of course, models from Ball, such as the Trainmaster wristwatch with a Swiss movement. After 1969, the quartz era began, which had a positive effect on accuracy.

Hodinky BALL Watch Co.: Fireman (cca 1940), Telemeter (cca 1950) a Trainmaster (cca 1978 s ETA strojkem).

BALL Watch Co.: Fireman (circa 1940), Telemeter (circa 1950) and Trainmaster (circa 1978 with ETA movement).

Speaking of movements, it is neccesary to add that Ball was no watchmaking inovator at that time. Ball was buying movements for the watches (and then modified them according to the requirements) from other companies, especially from American Hamilton, Elgin, Waltham and and in the 1940s switched to Swiss Avia. Ball was also connected to the Hamilton company through another cooperarion. Later he became vice president of the Hamilton Watch Company, and his focus, of course, continued to be on railway watches.

Towards the end of Webb Ball's life, his network of controls oversaw almost 125,000 miles of railroads in the United States, Canada and Mexico, contributing to greater safety.

Webb Ball died on March 6, 1922 in Cleveland. He left behind one son and three daughters. And of course the Ball Company. The company remained in his family's hands until the1990s. After that the rights to the name were sold. Today, Ball is headquartered in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a Swiss watch town, and is owned by a Hong Kong company Asia Commercial Holdings Ltd.

Rozhovor s Webbem Ballem v New-York Daily Tribune.

Interview with Webb Ball in the New-York Daily Tribune.

The uniqueness of Ball watches

Unique design combined with tritium lighting. It's hard to find a similarly affordable, well-built mechanical watch with tritium capsules. Plus with an original design like this. This is the absolute uniqueness of Ball watches, for which they are sought after and recognized.

The truth is that Ball is not a well-known brand. It is not another Swiss mainstream with marketing heavily subsidized by some corporate. Ball often comes to people by chance or after a long search for interesting models. But perhaps they are not missing in any proper watch forum, where the owners sing praises on them.

Ball itself refers strongly to its origins and connections with the railways, as can be seen in the names of his few collections. However, it must be said that the current Ball has little in common with the American original one, although its vision is still based on the effort to produce durable, reliable and accurate watches.

On the other hand, there is no need for more, because this vision can be seen in every model from Ball. It is an effort to maintain accurate time even in more demanding conditions, as it was a hundred years ago, when drivers often drove through the harsh plains of America from East to West.
In terms of design, Ball successfully strives for a certain timelessness. The watches look modern, yet classic. The seemingly elegant look is accompanied with durability and, of course, one of the key features of Ball – tritium.

The magical appeal of luminous tubes

If you are a lover of everything that shines at night, you are definitely going to love Ball. It uses tritium tubes in all of the watches, which glow in darkness with constant intensity and without the need to be charged with light or any another source.

Tritium is enclosed in the gaseous state in small glass tubes. The tubes are tightly sealed with a laser beam, but it is also important that they are covered on the inside with zinc sulphide. These two elements react together, creating a constant glow of the tubes.

Tritium has one disadvantage. The half-life of tritium is usually around 12 years, so the manufacturers of tritium watches generally guarantee 10 years of this unique luminosity. The intensity then decreases. Ball does is similarly, but nowaday it is advertised that the luminosity lasts up to 25 years, but above all, the intensity is one of the best. But obviously, the watch does not become useless after that, and it can usually be solved by replacing the entire dial.

Ball often uses several colored types of tubes, which are a real spectacle at night. It is one of the few manufacturers to use tritium capsules as it is usually more suitable for military type watches (let's remember Luminox, Traser). But Ball proves that they can combine sports elements with original elegance.

Swiss mechanics

Just as it was in the time of Webb Ball, Ball today does not usually make movements themselves, but adjusts the purchased movements according to their needs. To be specific, it is usually the proven movements from a Swiss manufacturer ETA, which also helps Ball to carry the mark Swiss Made. Movements (marked as RRxxxx) are finished in-house and are decorated.

Ball Roadmaster Challenger 18 COSC

Ball Roadmaster Challenger 18 COSC

Currently, they do have one completely own movement BALL Chronometer Manufacture Caliber 7309 – COSC certified movement with 80-hour power reserve and 4 Hz frequency.

Ball's materials and innovations

If there is a thing thta is really important to Ball, it is the endurance of the watch in difficult conditions. And it doesn't matter whether we are talking about resistance to impacts, natural influences, magnetism or water. And the second criterion is accuracy. Ball pays the utmost attention to these two conditions and focuses on them when developing their own solutions to achieve this. You can study more details on the Ball website, but it is definitely vital to state the most important things to understand the essence of the Ball watches.

Ball is one of the few brands – especially in this price category – that uses 904L surgical steel on some selected models. It is more resistant to corrosion, acids and has a seemingly bigger gloss compared to the more common 316L steel. However, the more complicated workmanship has to be paid for and the price is therefore multiple times more expensive. From some other brands, the one that got famous for using it is Rolex, which used the 904L steel for the first time ever. Or we can find a few Seiko models, which designates a similar aloy as Ever-Brilliant.

Ball Engineer III Legend má pouzdro z oceli 904L.

Ball Engineer III Legend has a case made of 904L steel.

Ball also owns several patents. The patented Amortiser® anti-shock system is definitely worth mentioning. The antimagnetic ring around the movement absorbs shocks and thus protects against damage and helps with accuracy. The SpringSEAL system in combination with SpringLOCK is also intended for this purpose and protects against deflection in the event of an impact. Simply said, it is an insert or a cage that protects the watch regulator (fiber) from moving when there is an impact on the watch.

Another interesting solution you may have seen at the end of the video is crown protection. The crown is one of the most risky places when it comes to the ingress of water, either by not tightening it right, not screwing it in, or by shock and physical damage.

On some models (Engineer Hydrocarbon), Ball uses a special protection, where the lock of the protection fits to the case only if the crown is properly screwed in.

Speciální kryt korunky zaručuje bezpečné uzamčení. Crown Protection system má Ball patentovaný

The special crown cover guarantees a secure lock. Special Crown Protection system for Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon watches.

Ball puts a lot of effort into making the watch resistant to magnetic influence, thus guaranteeing its constant accuracy. Especially models with the A-PROOF® protection system can withstand magnetic interference up to an intensity of 80,000 A/m (1,000 Gauss). However, an increased protection is used in every model.

All watches are also designed so that the movements work properly and accurately at temperatures from -40 ° C to 60 ° C.  There is also saphire crystal in every model, which is an ideal protection against scratches. Readability, especially in the Sun, is also excellent thanks to the anti-reflective layer.

Ball also introduced several interesing construstion solutions. Besides offering a model with a Kelvin thermometer (which is not so common with mechanical watches), they also introduced the patented Ball Engineer Master II Slide Chronograph way of control in 2015.

What is interesting about it is the way you control the stopwatch. Normally, one or more often two buttons are used for this. Ball has placed a sliding system on the left side, where you swipe up the stopwatch to start and the slider will return to the center position by itself.  Swipe again to stop them, swipe down to reset. Elegant and compelling solution.


Ball Engineer Master II Slide Chronograph

And there is more. The number of COSC certifications for accuracy, as well as design solutions, are clear evidence that Ball takes the reliability and accuracy of its timepieces as seriously as when they became a symbol for these values ​​centuries ago.

Is it worth the money?

The price may seem too high for a brand that you know little about. But as soon as you get the Ball in your hands, you have to notice the quality of the workmanship and technology that Ball takes as their basis. And than there is a more then interesting price to quality ratio. Of course, if you are one of the collectors who sends the watch on, a lesser-known name will make sales a bit more difficult. But as owners, you have no choice but to marvel.

Men's Ball Watches – Photo gallery of the most interesting pieces

Ball is often compared to well-known names such as Tag Hauer or Braitling. And Ball, with its original design and quality, will definitely attract a well-deserved attention wherever you go just like some well-known brand. 


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The best watches for me? Yes, Ball...