At the turn of the 19th century, clocks and watches were relatively accurate, but they remained expensive. Recognizing the potential market for a low-cost timekeeper, two investors in Waterbury, Conn., took action. In 1807 they gave Eli Terry, a clockmaker in nearby Plymouth, a three-year contract to manufacture 4,000 longcase clock movements from wood. A substantial down payment made it possible for Terry to devote the first year to fabricating machinery for mass production. By manufacturing interchangeable parts, he completed the work within the terms of the contract.
A few years later Terry designed a wooden-movement shelf clock using the same volume-production techniques. Unlike the longcase design, which required the buyer to purchase a case separately, Terry’s shelf clock was completely self-contained. The customer needed only to place it on a level shelf and wind it up. For the relatively modest sum of $15, many average people could now afford a clock. This achievement led to the establishment of what was to become the renowned Connecticut clockmaking industry.
Before the expansion of railroads in the 19th century, towns in the U.S. and Europe used the sun to determine local time. For example, because noon occurs in Boston about three minutes before it does in Worcester, Mass., Boston’s clocks were set about three minutes ahead of those in Worcester. The expanding railroad network, however, needed a uniform time standard for all the stations along the line. Astronomical observatories began to distribute the precise time to the railroad companies by telegraph. The first public time service, introduced in 1851, was based on clock beats wired from the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The Royal Observatory introduced its time service the next year, creating a single standard time for Britain.
The U.S. established four time zones in 1883. By the next year the governments of all nations had recognized the benefits of a worldwide standard of time for navigation and trade. At the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., the globe was divided into 24 time zones. Delegates chose the Royal Observatory as the prime meridian (zero degrees longitude, the line from which all other longitudes are measured) in part because two thirds of the world’s shipping already used Greenwich time for navigation.
Watches for the Masses
Many clockmakers of this era realized that the market for watches would far exceed that for clocks if production costs could be reduced. The problem of mass-fabricating interchangeable parts for watches, however, was considerably more complicated because the precision demanded in making the necessary miniaturized components was so much greater. Although improvements in quantity manufacture had been instituted in Europe since the late 18th century, European watchmakers’ fears of saturating the market and threatening their workers’ jobs by abandoning traditional practices stifled most thoughts of introducing machinery for the production of interchangeable watch parts.
Disturbed that American watchmakers seemed unable to compete with their counterparts in Europe, which controlled the market in the late 1840s, a watchmaker in Maine named Aaron L. Dennison met with Edward Howard, who had established a successful clock- and scale-making business in Roxbury, Mass., to discuss mass-production methods for watches. Howard and his partner gave Dennison space to experiment and develop machinery for the project. By the fall of 1852, 20 watches had been completed under Dennison’s supervision. His workmen finished 100 watches by the following spring, and 1,000 more were produced a year later. By that time the manufacturing facilities in Roxbury were proving too small, so the newly named Boston Watch Company moved to Waltham, Mass., where by the end of 1854 it was assembling 36 watches a week.