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.
"Is it not very trying to your eyes?" "If I were to do it all day, or even for an hour steadily," the painter replies, " they would ache terribly. But I put the inscription on two dozen dials, and then rest my sight by painting on the figures, lines, and dots."
"My father," observes the superintendent of the room, who is looking over his shoulder, " was an English dial painter. Once he traced the Lord's Prayer with one of these camel'shair brushes on asurface one-eighth of an inch long by one-ninth of an inch wide. Half the wing of a common bouse-fly would cover it. It a,qed the old gentleman's eyes twenty years for his work, but he could see objects at a distance just as well as ever." One can only wonder that it did not strike him blind.
In the Finishing Room we find a drawer full of mainsprings, coiled so loosely that each is as large as a breakfast saucer. One drawn out straight will be two feet long. It is polished like a mirror, and tempered to a beautiful deep blue. A girl coils one to the diameter of a thimble, and then, rifling one of the birds'nests, inserts the mainspring in its brass " barrel," the head of which is held in by a groove like the head of a flour-barrel. This circular chamber, only seven-tenths of an inch across, contains the whole power of the watch. One end of the mainspring is fast to the shaft which pnsses through it, and by which it is turned; the other, as it uncoils, carries around the barrel, and so communicates motion to the train. She puts the parts together temporarily, inserting only screws enough to keep them in place. Her flying fingers set up ninety watches and empty ninety birds' nests every day. The latter go back to the Plate Room for more eggs and fresh incubations; here at least there are always birds in last year's nests.
Hair-springs are made in the factory, of finest English steel, which comes upon spools like thread. To the naked eye it is as round as a hair, but under the microscope it becomes a flat steel ribbon. We insert this ribbon between the jaws of a fine gauge, and the dial-hand shows its diameter to be two twenty-five-hundredths of an inch. A hair plucked from a man's head measures three twenty-five-hundredths-one from the bead of a little girl at a neighboring bench two twenty-five-hundredths. Actually, however, the finest hair is twice as thick as the steel ribbon, for the hair compresses one-half between the metallic jaws of the gauge. A hair-spring weighs only one-fifteen-thousandth of a pound Troy. In a straight line it is a foot long. With a pair of tweezers we draw one out in spiral form until it is six inches long; but it springs back into place, not bent a particle from its true coiling. It must be exquisitely tempered, for it is to spring back and forth eighteen thousand times an hour, perhaps for several generations. A pound of steel in the bar may cost one dollar in hair-springs it is worth four thousand dollars.
After the watch has been run a few hours, to adjust the length of the hair-spring, it is "taken down," and all the brass pieces sent to the GildingRoom. There each part is polished for electro-gilding. Gold coin is first rolled out into sheets, and then dissolved with acids. At some stages it looks like nauseating medicine, but when it goes into the battery the solution is as colorless as spring-water. But it is a deadly poison. A girl in this room was kept at home for three weeks with sores upon her hand caused by dipping it in the liquid.
Twenty or thirty of the brass plates and wheels are hung by a copper wire' in the inner vessel or porous cell of a galvanic battery, filled with this solution, and the silent electric current deposits the gold evenly upon their surfaces. Ordinarily they are left in it about six minutes the quick, educated eye of the superintendent determines how long. A twenty dollar gold piece will furnish him with heavy gilding for six hundred watches, but he could make it gild four thousand so that they would look equally well on first coming out; or he could put five hundred dollars upon a single one-leaving the gold an inch thick all over the works-and it would look no better. All the pieces come out clothed in vellow, shining gold, and are sent back to the finishing Room, put together again, and then turned over to the "watchmakers"-the only persons in the factory necessarily familiar with all parts of the watch. A dozen sit in a row, in a very strong light, before a long bench strewn with their minute brushes, tweezers, magnifiers, and glass cases which cover small mountains of wheels and pinions. They insert the balance and hairspring, see that everything has been properly fitted, and put on the dial.
Then the watches, each in a little circular tin case, go in boxes of ten to the lynx-eyed Inspector, who scrutinizes every part for the slightest flaw or defect. Here is a box which has passed through his hands. Upon two watches are little slips of paper, one labeled "Fork strikes potance"-a slight but needless friction; the other, "Fix the number"-the figures upon some one piece being wrong or illegible. About one-third are thus sent back to the watchmakers, "after his rigid examination. The last scene of all is the adjusting. In his quiet little room the Adjuster keeps the Equator and the North Pole always on hand and ready for use in large or small quantities. First he runs the watch eight hours in a little box heated by a spirit-lamp to one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit. Then he runs it eight hours in a refrigerator, where the temperature is nearly at zero. It must keep time exactly alike under these two conditions. If he finds any variation he changes the position of the screws in the compensation-balance, or substitutes new ones, first carefully weighing them in a pair of tiny scales of his own contriving.
When we ask him to show us the minutest weight they will indicate he places a bit of whisker upon one end, and adjusts the weight. The speck of hair weighs a trifle over the fiftyseven millionth of a pound Troy. The watch is next carefully adjusted to keep equal lime in different positions. Then it is ready for the case. Its different parts are composed of one hundred and fifty-six pieces. The old watch, made by hand, contained eight hundred pieces, if we count each link of its chain as a separate part. Reducing the number fourfifths has correspondingly reduced its intricacy, friction, and difficulties of repairing.
The proprietors realized from the outset that they could only succeed by making good timekeepers. To that one result all their energy has been directed. Manufacturing upon this large scale involves the use of so much capital that after a fine watch is finished and running they can not keep it a year for adjusting and regulating, as jewelers used to do under the old method. Most of their watches have gone out warm from the factory, but they have run with wonderful accuracy. The very first half dozen used upon the Pennsylvanin Railway were brought in by the engineers at the end of six days, and the greatest variation among them was eight seconds.
The railroad is the great critic. Nowhere else is a watch so severely tested; nowhere else is accuracy so absolutely essential. After careful trial, solely upon their own merits, the Elgin watches have been adopted as the standard upon several of our leading trunk lines. On the Pennsylvania Road alone more than a hundred locomotives are run by them, and they are in use among conductors and engineers upon every railway in the Northwest, and upon the great trans-continental line from Omaha to San Francisco. That is as it should be the Pacific Railway trains run by American watches.