Watches by Machinery
This is an article we found in the spring
issue of Harpers
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.
The works of a watch, not counting the plates which form the shell or frame, are of brass and steel in nearly equal proportions. And,by-the-way, why is "brassy" a term of denunciation, and "as true as steel" the language of compliment, when brass may be made nearly as bard as steel, and will take almost as fine a temper? Steel is used in a watch wherever there is great strain upon some very slender part. But where there is much friction between two wheels one must be of brass and the other of steel. By some mysterious law of metals these will outlast two wheels of the hardest and most highly polished steel twice over.
Great sheets of brass and steel are first received in the Punching Room, where an enormous pair of shears cuts them into ribbons. These are lengthened and thinned between a pair of steel rollers, which, if required, will leave them only one-four-thousandth of an inch thick. One of these ribbons is then passed slowly between the punch and die of a huge press, driven by a heavy wheel which a workman controls with his foot. The punch rises and falls with the motion of the wheel, coming down each time with a weight of twenty tons, and with a "click," cutting Out a perfect spoked wheel. The press is an enormous monster which bites out mouthfuls of steel but refuses to digest them. Like most monsters, however, it will do no damage if it is only fed. It leaves the wheels fast in the strip to be knocked out by hand. With it a man can cut out ten thousand wheels in a single day.
Next we visit the Plate Room. The upper and lower brass plates are respectively the roof and floor of the watch. The upper one must have thirty-one holes bored in it, for pillars, pivots, and screws. A little girl cuts them with a needle-like drill, which revolves like lightning, and goes through the thick plate in a twinkling. Another girl, with a chisel whirling with equal rapidity, cuts away the ragged burs or edges left on the side where the drill comes out. This "countersinking," which leaves a cuplike depression, is performed wherever a hole is drilled through brass, steel, or jewel.
The four pillars-the posts which are to bind roof and floor together are made and inserted in the lower plate by a miraculous little contrivance, which a coffee saucer would cover. The punching machine is a behemoth, but this is a fairy. it seizes one end of a brass wire, and in eleven seconds measures off a pillar, turns it down to the required size, makes a screw-thread in each end, cuts it off, and screws one end into the lower plate so firmly that we can not unscrew it with a pair of pincers.
But it keeps the workman's feet busy, and his hands flying as if he played a lively tune upon the piano. He will easily make and insert two thousand pillars in a day. By hand he could hardly make two dozen.
When the brass pieces are finished, all belonging to one watch are stamped with the same number and put into one of ten little boxes hollowed out in a board like birds'-nests. The nests have yet many journeys to make before the eggs are hatched; but the shell or frame is now ready for the works. The tipper plate is next engraved. Three men and four girls are kept busy tracing the elaborate scroll-work, and the inscription, "B. W. Raymond, Elgin, Illinois, No. 41,280," or "J. T. Ryerson, No. 41,290," as the case may be. The different grades made here are "Lady Elgin," "B. W. Raymond," "Mat Laflin," "G. M. Wheeler, " " H. Z. Culver," " H. H. Taylor," and "J. T. Ryerson;" but the numbering runs consecutively through all.
The screws in a watch number forty-four, or more than one-quarter Of all its pieces. The Screw and Steel Department is one of the largest in the factory. Its magical little automata, run by nimble-fingered girls, convert shining steel wire into infinitesimal screws, pare down their heads, and cut slots in them for microscopic screwdrivers. They are polished to perfect smoothness, and then, like every other part of the watch, brought to "spring temper"-the temper of the sword-blade-by beating, which leaves them of a rich, deep blue. The illustration shows the screws of their actual size, and also one magnified 100 times each way, or 10,000 times the actual size.
Here are machines which will cut screws with five hundred threads to the inch ; the finest used in the watch have two hundred and fifty. Even these threads are invisible to the naked eye, and it takes one hundred and forty-four thousand of the screws to weigh a pound. A pound of them is worth six pounds of pure gold. Lay one upon a piece of white paper, and it looks like the tiniest steel-filing. Only by placing it under a strong magnifier can we detect its threads and see that it is shining as a mirror, and as true and perfect as the driving wheel of a locomotive. Screws for the best compensation-balance are of gold. A ten-dollar piece will furnish material for six hundred and fifty of them.