Railway timetables are a national joke in this country, often seeming to be random sets of numbers that bear no resemblance to the actual time that trains arrive or leave. But, of course, timetables should be no laughing matter. Indeed, the historian AJP Taylor once put forward the theory that WWI broke out because the German railway timetables meant that once troops were mobilised, the order couldn't be rescinded.
So accurate railway timekeeping has always been of vital importance. And, after a horrific fatal collision in Ohio back in 1891, thanks to an engineer's watch stopping for a mere four minutes, railroad officials appointed a Cleveland watchmaker, Webster Clay Ball, as the chief inspector. He was entrusted with the task of establishing precise and uniform time standards as well as a reliable inspection process for all railroad chronometers. The reason Ball was chosen for the task was that he had been the first watchmaker in Cleveland to use time signals from the United States Naval Observatory to set clocks. This ensured that the city kept accurate time, rather than relying on vague approximations based on clocks on church steeples. (Indeed, up until the 1880s, American towns often operated their own, local time zones.)
From this appointment grew the prestigious Ball Watch Company. While it did not manufacture its own movements, its timepieces all adhered to Ball's strict guidelines for accuracy and reliability, and were seen as the standard by which the American railroad network was run. Indeed, most of the major American manufacturers (and even some Swiss ones, including the world-famous Geneva watchmaker Vacheron Constantin) soon adopted Ball's exacting standards. By the time he died in 1922, Webster Clay Ball had been awarded numerous international awards to honour his contribution to saving lives on the railway.
Today, the Ball Watch Company is based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and uses Swiss-made movements. Perhaps its most famous model line is the Engineer series, which pays homage to the company's railroad roots. They have been described as "no-nonsense" pieces - in a complimentary sense. One of the series' unique features is patented "micro gas tubes". The company claims that these will glow continuously for up to 25 years, lighting both the numerals and hands 100 times more brightly than any other luminous material.
The Engineer Master II Officer may owe its heritage to the age of steam, but this model is very much designed with flight in mind. With its classic, simple-to-read dial and clear Arabic numerals, this is one of the most handsome aviator watches on the market. The hinged caseback provides antimagnetic and shock resistance while still allowing you to see the manual-wind movement, which is perfect for checking that your timekeeping is on the right track.
Engineer Master II Officer by the Ball Watch Company, from £1,240. ballwatch.com
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