6 May 2017

An antique Hampden Wm. McKinley pocket watch

More than 100 years old and still ticking away solidly.

By In Gear, Style 4 min read

Seven months ago I bought a lot of several watches from a local watch forum, including an antique pocket watch that I’d only seen in a blurry picture. It looked very interesting, beautifully finished, even in the blur. I asked the seller about it but he really did not know much about it. It still wound, he said, but the glass was broken and you couldn’t set the time. He even thought the balance wheel was broken because there was a gap in it. Sold as-is, for parts.

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When I received it I gave the pocket watch a good look. It looked beautiful – the dial was undamaged, the hands were still straight, the decorations immaculate. I started googling the names and numbers on the watch, hoping to find a manufacturer or model. The movement turned out to be from the American Hampden factory, fitted to a case from the Dueber factory. According to the history of these companies the owner of the Dueber factory refused to join a cartel called the ‘watch trust’, which regulated prices of watch parts. But without joining the trust, Dueber no longer had access to the watch movements from the trust’s members. His solution was simple: he bought the entire Hampden movement factory. From that point on, the company sold Dueber-Hampden pocket watches.

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The signature ‘Wm. McKinley’ on the dial is of William McKinley, the American president who was a friend of Dueber’s owner. McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by an angry anarchist and buried in Canton, the city Hampden was based in. As a tribute to the president Hampden named their next movement for him. According to the serial number this movement was made in 1903 – more than 100 years ago!

An original ad for the Dueber-Hampden Wm. Mckinley pocket watch
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The gap in the balance wheel the seller warned me about – visible at 12 o’clock in the top wheel in the picture above – turned out not to be a defect, but a technological innovation. This special method for creating balance wheels is designed to make them less susceptible to temperature changes, where the metal might shrink or expand and this deformation would change the balance of the wheel.

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The inability to set time turned out to be a feature, not a bug. This line of pocket watches was made to ‘railroad standard’ specs. At the time these pocket watches were used by train conductors and operators, and these devices were the only way they had of coordinating the train schedules. But if a pocket watch was slow or set incorrectly, you might assume the train tracks were free – when in fact, they were not. After some horrible crashes with countless deaths, pocket watches became held to regulations to make sure these crashes would not happen again.

One of the demands of the railroad standard is that it should not be possible to accidentally set the time. In a normal pocket watch you both wind the watch and set the time using the crown – making it very easy to accidentally misclick and change the time on your watch while winding. So for a railroad standard pocket watch they added a small hidden lever, which needed to be toggled to enable setting the time. You can see it at the bottom of the case in the picture below. The watch set time just fine, but the seller wasn’t aware of the existence of this lever!

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It seemed the damage to the watch was minimal. The glass needed replacement, which wasn’t strange after more than 100 years, and the movement needed some care from an experienced watch maker as the oil had long dried up. But this was definitely not an ‘as is, for parts’ situation as the seller had thought. My watchmaker did have some issues while servicing the movement, as it turned out a previous repair had been a bit of a botchjob, but after a few months I received the pocket watch in perfect working order.

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That’s looking pretty damn good! It’s amazing to see the craftsmanship involved in an antique pocket watch like this, which still works more than 100 years after it was originally built. The decorations are particularly beautiful, especially when you consider that this was built before such decorations could be applied in a factory line by a robotic machine. Every line, curve and piece of shading was done by hand by trained artisans.

It’s not a watch that I’ll ever actually wear, I’m not nearly enough of a hipster for that, but it’ll have a great place in the collection as a piece to look at and admire!

(Original post in Dutch)

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