Watches by Machinery

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This is an article we found in the spring issue of Harpers 1869. It tells the story of the new factory at Elgin Illinois. I have placed the pictures in place where they appeared in the text, but I made them a link so you don't have to wait for them to load if you are interested in the text only.


Until very lately American jewelers imported wheels, balances, and other material ready made from Switzerland, fitted the various parts together by band, put their stamp upon them, and called that watchmaking. Its art and mystery was acquired in an apprenticeship of from three to five years. In Switzerland, division of labor had been introduced long before. Each workman performed some one process of shaping, cutting, or finishing parts of the watch in his own little shop at home, and returned the parts to the manufacturer, as bootmaking is done in New England. And for many processes, little labor-saving machines, run by foot lathes, had come to be used.

In 1852, A. L. Denison, a Boston watchmaker, conceived the plan of producing watches by collecting all these machines under one roof, and running them by one power. His wild dream was that a time might come when a manufactory could turn out ten watches a day. Most of his friends voted him crazy, but he had the one quality which makes all lunacy contagious-profound earnestness. He soon made Edward Howard, David P. Davis, and Samuel Curtis as mad as himself, and the four lunatics built a factory in Roxbury. But the Swiss authorities would not permit the export of machines, models, or drawings; so, Yankee-like, the four pioneers invented and constructed machines for themselves. Finally, they turned out a watch, the first ever made by machinery in the world. It is yet in Mr. Howard's possession, and keeps excellent time. The machines were very imperfect, and much of the work was still done by hand. But from that beginning have sprung all our watch factories, I now situated respectively in Elgin, Illinois, Newark and Marion, New Jersey, and Waltham, Roxbury, and Springfield, Massachusetts. As we step aboard the Galena train at Chicago we observe the placard, "Pacific Express; does not Stop at Way Stations." We ponder behind the locomotive for forty miles; then the brakeman ends our reverie by shouting "Elgin.

The Town of Elgin

Leaving the train, we gaze down upon a far spreading little city, with courthouse, academy, and churches upon commanding knolls, brick blocks and broad streets, cottages pleasantly shaded with oak, maple, and poplar, a woolen mill, a flouring mill, a butt-and-screw manufactory, and a milk-condensing establishment that ships its product to New York-all beside the bright river which cuts the town in twain, and is spanned by a gossamer iron bridge; and over the housetops, a mile away, the tall chimney of the National Watch Factory. In the spring of 1864 half a dozen active business men of Chicago, heard a fascinating description of the leading Massachusetts watch factory. Yo their willing ears it was a story with a moral, and this was the moral: "If Boston can make watches by machinery and Chicago can largely supply the Northwest, Chicago can make watches by machinery and largely supply New England." It was the genuine, audacious, self-reliant Western spirit. Practical workmen assured them that with the investment of a hundred thousand dollars in buildings and machinery they could begin to turn out watches. They added fifty per cent to this estimate for a margin, and with that blessed unconsciousness of the difficulties before them, without which no great enterprise would ever be undertaken, they organized the National Watch Company, and in November the work began.

The Elgin Watch Factory

After two years and a half spent in constructing the hundreds of intricate machines and erecting the buildings, in May, 1867, the first watch was completed. Not, however, until long after the first hundred and fifty thousand dollars was exhausted-that barely sufficed for a beginning. Before the enterprise was self-sustaining more than five hundred thousand dollars bad been expended, and its owners and friends would doubtless have doubled that sum rather than permit it to fail. A Watch Factory twenty years ago.

The watch factory of twenty years ago-let pencil and graver fix its humble features ere the place which once knew it shall know it no more forever. The tiny building, with its sign, "John Smith, Watchmaker," the single room, eight by ten, with its counter, showcase, and window bung with watches, and its one workman, who repaired fifty watches a year, and "made" two or three at odd times. Here and there one of these establishments yet exists, but it is as really a relic of antiquity as a hand-loom or a wooden plow.

The National Watch Factory at Elgin is a specimen of the great museums of machinery and beehives of workmen which have pushed it from its stool. The front, shown * in our illustration, is two hundred and forty feet long. Several other wings are hidden in the rear, The cars of the Fox River Railway deliver material at the very door.

My first view of the factory yard was toward the close of the noon hour ' when the employees were pouring back from dinner. It was a fair picture. On one side the gleaming river, with white and spotted cattle grazing upon its bank; on the other a grove of young oaks, their leaves falling from autumnal frosts; in the foreground scores of ruddy-cheeked girls sauntering back toward their work, while quiet artisans smoked their cigars and meerschaums upon the factory steps and a little platform where a band of operatives discourses music on Saturday afternoons in summer. A dozen young men were jumping, with dumbbells in their hands, each trial calling out shouts of applause or merriment; and a score of boys playing baseball as if their salvation depended upon it. Suddenly the great bell set behind the factory struck for one o'clock, and the swarm of life poured into the building.

The employees are equally divided between the sexes. I never saw so many boys and girls in an Eastern manufactory. The working day is ten hours. Whenever the welcome bell proclaims the hour of noon , or six in the afternoon, these young people give a whoop like released schoolchildren, and can hardly wait to put away tools and make benches tidy before they join the merry throng streaming homeward.

The average earnings of the girls are something over six dollars per week-in a few cases as high as twelve; those of the boys and men three dollars per day. Board for girls costs about three dollars per week; for men, from five dollars upward. "That little girl," said the superintendent of the Steel Room to me, " can do any thing in this large department as well as any man in it;" and a number of similar cases were pointed out to me.

The Elgin Machine Shop

The Machine Shop-a hundred feet long, with thirty brawny, bare-armed workmen-is the letter A in the alphabet of the watch factory. Here all the tools and machines are manufactured and repaired. Their name is legion; their sizes are innumerable. They include machines which will take a shaving off a hair, and those which will slice up steel like apples; registers that will measure the twenty-five hundredth of an inch, and registers that will measure a foot; drills for making holes invisible to the naked eve, and drills almost as large as crowbars; and so on ad infinitum. I will not attempt to describe the "cams," "taps," "clamps","quills","reamers","eccentrics","chucks," and wigwags." The one thing a which strikes a novice is the wonderful accuracy and minuteness, the beautiful smoothness and polish of every thing. The finest jobs of ordinary machine-shops would be thrown aside here as utterly worthless.

Punching the Wheels

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