A visit to the works of the National Watch Company

Originally published on the 16th November, 1866 in the Chicago Tribune.

This article provides a detailed description of the new factory of NWCo. This article predates both the Abbott & Crossman articles of the factory and provides additional information that is not covered by their articles. The surprising fact that the B. W. Raymond was not the first model in the factory is also documented which has never been documented before. There are parts of the original article that are illegible and we are still working to decipher those words. This is a new source of information that changes what we know about the early years of the factory.

A Brief history of the Company – The Disadvantages with which they have Contended – Extent of their Factory  -Delicacy of the Machinery Employed.


The Process of Watch-Making


A little more than two years ago a number of enterprising capitalists in this city, simulated by the unqualified success which has attended the only watch manufacturers in this country, at Waltham and Roxbury, Massachusetts, determined to transplant this incrative branch of industry to this vicinity. For the purpose of establishing the new manufactory on an adequate basis, a company was formed, with a capital of $250,000, and, to insure the success of the enterprise by the employment of men of skill and experience to conduct it, inducements of sufficient magnitude were offered to some of the most talented and capable employes of the old Waltham Company, to bring them out here.

Some time was spent, after the company had been formed and the necessary capital paid in, in selecting a place for the location of the factory. All the country towns for a long distance about Chicago, were explored with a view to finding someone where a healthful and beautiful site for the works and workmen’s cottages could be procured and at the same time near a railway. The best place which could be found was at Elgin, and farther encouragement was offered for the selection of this place by the people of that town, who generously gave twenty-seven acres, in a healthful location near the river banks, and just within the city limits, for the uses of the company, who still farther increased the extent of their land but the purchase of several acres more. The company was at this time organized with the following officers:

  • President – B. W. Raymond, of Chicago.
  • Vice-President – Philo Carpenter, Chicago.
  • Treasurer – Thomas S. Dickerson, Chicago.
  • Secretary – G. M. Wheeler, Chicago.
  • Additional Directors – H. C. Culver, Chicago; Joseph F. Ryerson, Chicago; B. F. Lawrence, Elgin.

The company having thus fixed the site for their future operations, in December, 1861. The skilled operatives from Waltham came on to take the enterprise in hand. There were eight or ten of these gentlemen : but the principal one, he on whom almost entirely depended the success of the undertaking, was Mr Chas. S. Moseley, a Massachusetts man. Who has spent about fourteen years in watchmaking and the various processes connected with it, and who, in his conduct of the arduous and responsible duties confided to him, has developed talents of a high order, more than realizing the high expectations of his ability entertained by the company.

The buildings erected under Mr. Moseley’s direction were commodious, elegant and perfectly adapted to the uses for which they were designed, but as we will come to a description of them directly, more need not be said in this connection regarding them. While they were being put up the workmen were busily employed, in some wooden shops down in the centre of Elgin, making machinery to make other machinery for service in watch-making. The infinite care required in every portion of this work, and the limited conveniences at their disposal. Prevented their making very rapid progress – at least, it seemed as it a very large amount of work was put in a very small compass – still when the time came to move into the new house, they had quite a fair show of tools to commence earnest operations with. The work of making tools for this business seems, however, never to come to an end, and up to the present time there has been no cessation in it. Little else, indeed has been done in all its while, than to make machinery. From the first, however, the undertaking has borne the air of a predestined success, backed as it has been by wealth, talent and energy and the postponement of practical results in the form of completed work has never shaken any confidence in it. There was been a slight change in the officers of the company, the organization now standing:

  • President – B. W. Raymond.
  • Vice President – B. F. Lawrence.
  • Secretary and Treasury – G. M. Wheeler.
  • Directors (Added to preceding) H. C. Culver, T. S. Dickerson; J. F. Ryerson; T. M. Avery.
  • General Superintendent – Charles S. Moseley.

Another noticeable change, is the fact that from the original eight or ten hands, the number of employes is now increased to about seventy, and more are being added as rapidly as they can be procured. To accommodate these hands, a number of cottages have been erected by the company. For the married men and a large boarding house, three stories high and and ???? feet in extent, now being up up for the single folks. The cottages are neat and comfortable and the boarding house resembles rather more an elegant mansion than what a boarding house is generally conceived to be.

Before sketching our visit to the factory. It may not be amiss to insert here some remarks relative to the quality of watch which it is proposed to manufacture here.

The American watches have already gained the ???? of superiority over all others, as time keepers, from the two facts, that they are greatly simplified and consequently less liable to get out of repair than other the English or Swiss watches; and, also that they are manufactured acutely by machhery, this securing a greater degree of accuracy than could ever be attained by hand-work. English watchmakers are surprised when they come here and see to what extent we carry the application of machinery in this delicate and difficult business. As will be seen in our description of the process of watchmaking, there is nothing in all the minatie of the works of a watch which is not made here by machines constructed for the purpose, from the cutting of a thread on a screw, one four-hundredth of an inch in diameter, up to the stamping out of a dial plate. The results of this system are, first a cheaping of the cost; second, the perfect duplication of every part. So that the repairing of any broken or worn out portion of the works costs very little and may readily be created. Ten thousand American watches, of one pattern made by this system are alike in every part, even to the ten thousandth of an inch – all equally perfect. This is not the case with the European watches, which are mainly made by hand, and in which each part has to be fitted to a particular watch. Now a few words relative to the character of the watch itself. In this, as in all other pieces of delicate mechanism, the greater the degree of simplicity a ???? the nearer is the approach to perfection – if the simplified machine does all that the complicated one is meant to do. The fusee and chain, so necessary to the old fashioned verge watch, have been by English makers, through an absurd conservatism. Retained in the lever watch, where they are not only useless, but an infinite cause of trouble, accident, and increased expense. This objectionable feature has been entirely wiped out from the American watch and is also disused by the Swiss. Such universal success has attended time-keepers made on this principle that the old prejudice in facouver of the insecured chained, as an “equalizer of the force,” is now generally removed in this country, and the American watch is recognized as the best timekeeper in the world. So much for the watch. Let us now visit the factory where it is made in its most perfect form.

Mr Mosley commenced the arduous task of founding a watch-making establishment under prestor di-advantages than ever before surrounded a design of such magnitude it is comparatively easy to start an ordinary machine shop, a wool or cotton mill, or any other mechanical enterprise, where one has no more to do than order one’s machinery, all ready made, put up a house to place it in, and then go to work. Far different were the requirements of the situation in which Mr Moseley and his Yankee comrades found themselves, and the manner in which they met and overcame all obstacles, add another leaf to the imperialable ????? which Yankee genius and enterprise have won in a fair race against all the world. The first need was a suitable building, and here Moseley “came out strong” as an architect He knew precisely what kind of building he wanted, and, under his ac????nd intelligent supervision, his idea was soon realized in a superb structure, the very perfection of an ????  for the purpose for which it was designed. In addition to being in the highest ????? practical, if possesses the advantage of ??eming complete all the while, and still capable of extension in proportion to the necessities of the business, without ever destroying its symmetry and beauty, or diminishing its perfect availability. The design is that each shall, when finished comma be in the form of an H. At present only about two fifths are complete or in other words The cross stroke and half of the first down the H. This gives a main building forty feet square and two wings at right angles, each one hundred feet in length by twenty-seven in width. The office, superintendent’s and secretary’s rooms are in the square building. In the wings, either watch-making or the making of tools, to make other tools, to make ??ll other tools necessary to make watches, are carried on. In addition, there ??? a one-story building, or rather a half b???, ?uel, on the middle of the cross-piece of ???. for the ????-house on one side and the engine-house on the other. So much for the house. The next thing to be done was to get the necessary tools into the house. Here the genius of Moseley became conspicuous . He could not buy any of the hundreds of machines wanted, except a heavy iron plating machine and a couple of large engine lathes. These would for the coarsest work of building the necessary machinery, but nothing more. Everything required had to be made under his direction, and as  a single instance showing the immensity of the work before him, we may cite the labor required in one small particular. The teeth or cogs on the barrel ???n of their watches are cut with what they d?ominate the “epeydoidal” curve, this form being for various reasons, deemed the best. Perfect accuracy in cutting these teeth, even to the then thousandth of an inch, is absolutely necessary, merely to make the “cutte?” or bit with which they are formed half a dozen intricate machines each of the most delicate and accurate mechanism, are required. To make these machines as many more are needed, and every portion of all these had to be made here, patiently built up ???????? greatest disadvantages as Adam would have founded if he had undertaken to make a watch in the Garden of Eden. To begin at the very beginning, the castings which they needed could not be got without made by themselves. They would not be accurate, – the sand in which they were made would be too coarse, – the metal would be variable, sometimes too hard, and again too soft. So as the letter A, in the long alphabet of their ????tions and necessities, Moseley and his comrades set up an iron and brass foundry, bringing their ??? in barrels from New York State and mixing their metals to suit themselves. Then they went at finishing up the castings made there and putting them together in the beautiful machinery which now filled the building. For all this Mr Moseley had not a drawing, a plan, a measurement, to model, other than extracted in his memory. He remembered, thought out and improved upon machinery for every possible use in his business – he made working drawings (as admirable finished as if he were naught but a draughtsman), – then he ???? pattern drawings – superintendent the making of patterns – directed the choice of ????, the modes of casting, the finishing, – everything in short, and never made a mistake. Rapidly the work went on ??ged by his restless energy. Fortune as ??? every does, smiled when her frowns ere ????? and ??? long the factory began to fill up with the finest machinery in the world, all however, or nearly all machinery to make other machinery for use in watch-making.

Having given thus much of a general review of the earlier existence of this enterprise, let us sketch it as it appears at present to an unprofessional visitor, endeavoring in so doing to mystify one reader, as little as possible with technical phrases, and at the same time give a tolerably intimate  description of the several processes of watchmaking.

One does not march straight into the secrets of this establishment as into a blacksmith’s shop or a rolling mill. On passing the verstiable and entering the hall, one has to ring a bell, wait until a boy comes, undergo a visual inspection by the boy, tell the boy who one wishes to see, wait until the boy finds that individual, wait until the individual comes, and then, perhaps, one may be allowed to enter.

Inside everything is as neat and clean as a private house, The walls are white, the floors fairly polished, the machinery almost noiseless and free from oil and dust. While the excellent arrangements for light and ventilation make the place as cheerful as one could imagine or wish.

The first room to out right as we enter is hall 100 feet by 27 feet, known as the machine shop, under charge of Mr George Hunter and his assistant Mr. F. Hancock, both formerly connected with the Waltham Watch Factory. Here thirty men are constantly employed in making machinery. Either for ???? use in some of the various processes of watchmaking ot to make tools and machines for such use. Some thirty or forty lathes, turning and planing machines, etc, are in operation here all the while, yet the noise is not so great as would be made by half a dozen sewing machines, so perfect is everything, There is no rattle of loose machines, no jar to lily based ones, and most of the noise we hear comes from the network of rushing belts overheard. The heavier engines, the large planers for example, are based upon stone piers sunk to the depths of foundations of the building, and the others are so firmly fixed and so accurately ???? and proport o??d that one scarce realizes they are at work if one does not see them. A noticeable feature in this department is the intensity of accuracy

Prevailing in everything and the ingenious arrangements for it’s maintenance there are “chucks”,  “chuck-gauges”, “scamers”, “drills”, “taps”, etc. all of the most delicate measurements, and there are duplicate “standard” pins, cases, etc, of hardened steel, by which variation of a thousandth of an inch,  either by accident or wear in any part may be instantly detected. As irstancing the nicety of these tools, it may be remarked that there are in this assortment “screw-tapes” of all sizes from four one-hundredths of an inch in diameter up to 1, 932 thousands, and it is actually by hundredths and thousandths that they are measured. To guard against injury or loss of any of these delicate and valuable tools, a record is kept of every one given out, and what workman has taken it, so that each man is interested to taking care of what is conferred to him, and the tools are not allowed to deteriorate in value. The advantages of this system must be readily apparent to any one having any knowledge of mechanics. It would be useless to go into any description here of machines which we shall find in actual operation in other parts of the building – besides we don’t feel quite sure of our ground in describing such unique, delicate and complicated contrivances and would much rather speak of the results, achieved by them. Little things here are the most important and at the same time most puzzling. What, per example, can be more confusing to a non-professional that the “train chuck” a thing which had “two eccenries in its face,” fifteen holes of various sizes scattered all over it and yet each one of these holes my successively be brought to the centre for purposes of drilling some one of many holes in and about the works of a watch. It’s all very simple to tell one that “its set by gauges and the shifting is done by the two eceentries – is is eccentric all over, and looking at it one hopes, with the old woman looking at the magician’s tricks,” that their ain’t suth’n wrong in it, after all.” One of the prettiest machines here is the “crank planer,” which will take a shaving off a hair, and one of the most generally nsetur a press, which, by means of an almost infinite series of punches and dies, stamps out centre barrel, third, fourth and escape wheels, click springs, and a magnature of other portions of a watch.

From here, where the machinery and tools are made, let us move on to where they are used in the actual manufacture of watches. The first room we visit in this quest is the “movement” department, and, as one of the harmless ecectriettles of the business. It may here be remarked that the “movement” is that part of a watch which does not move it is screwed fast, therefor they call it the movement. It consists of the two “plates”, “bridges”, “potents” and “pillars”. Mr P. S. Bartlett, an original Walthamite, is in charge here. Here one begins to admire the peculiar delicacy of the business. The two largest screws in the watch are made in this department. One is 123 twenty-five-hundredths of an inch in diameter; – the other is 112 twenty-five hundredths. These, it will be remembered, are big screws; – the little ones are only 60 twenty-five hundredths in diameter. On these one can scarcely see the thread without an eye-glass. Very pretty little turning machines are at work here cutting out the sunken places on the “bridge” and “plates” and reducing to regular thickness and smoothness the “potents,” and there are also canons “two-spindle” and “three-spindle” lathes for boring readily different sizes of holes in the plates, etc. Another very interesting machine in this department is that for making the female screws, or places for screws to be fastened in. This ingenious contrivance bores into a piece of metal, making a screw thread as it goes, and on reaching exactly the spot where it should stop it reverses its action and unscrews itself out of the metal, finishing the “tap” in a fraction of a second, and all simply by means of a fraction of a second, and all simply by means of a cunning device for reversing the power from a straight to a crossed belt. Everything made here is tested by a gauge which measures down to the five-hundredth of an inch, close enough to register an unevenness in a sheet of tissue paper.

From this we will pass to the “wheels and pinions” or “train” department, over the machine shop, which is under the superintendence of Mr J. K. Bigelow another original Walthamite in whom there is much skill. One scarcely knows what to begin here. What to look at or describe first. Quite a number of good looking girls are at work in the various processes of this department, but ours is strictly a business visit, so we make no note of them. As a gentle hint of the delicacy of the machinery and manipulations we are about to inspect. Mr. Bigelow exhibits first a gauge used here to test the accuracy of the completed work. It registers down to the one-thousandth of an inch – a silky bar from a convenient maiden’s bead we find to be just four one-thousandths of an inch in thickness. The butt end of our lead pencil the thing utterly refuses – it does not recognize the existence of anything so big. Naturally we are curious to see what are the things which it is intended this gauge shall measure. The first we see of them is where a man is seeing to a sort of biting machine long pieces of wire, and it chews them up into short pieces, – little fragments of various lengths. These are “pinions” in their crude state. The wire of which they are made is of steel, Stubbs’ best, imported from England. In a completed watch, of the kind now being made here, there are six “pinions” or axles for wheels, which are technically known as six “pinions” or axles for wheels, which they are technically known as the “centre”, “third”, “fourth”, “escape”, “minute” and “cannon”. Another form into which the wire is worked, very much like a “pinion” in certain respects, is the “barrel arbor”. After being cut up the fragments go through the operation of “centering”, or, in plain English, being pointed. Then some are ground, or rather turned off, so as to have short, sharp points; others long, sharp points; some with shoulders and others without; entirely too great a diversity for us to describe, but all done by delicate little machines, almost automatic in their action, worked by patient, bright eyed girls, whose fingers move so deftly that the changes in form seen almost magical, so rapid are they. Yet all is done with the most perfect accuracy. Some of the wire is cut off short, bored out and has cogs cut in it – ten cogs or teeth on a cylinder not larger than the barrel of an ordinary watch-key. These are to work, or “mash”, as the workmen term it, into the centre-wheel. Infinite are the care and nicety bestowed on these minute works. Nothing must vary the fraction of the thickness of a hair from the stipulated size and shape, or it is spoiled; and a great beauty about the machinery employed is that it will not spoil anything, even if the person managing it be unskilful or negligent. The delicate machines which make these pinions or cut the wheels, of which they form the axles, cease their cutting, grinding or whatever else they may be employed at, precisely at the right instant – a stroke too much or one too little is impossible – so all that they make are perfect facsimiles –  one the exact model of all the rest. A very interesting process carried on here is the jewel cutting. It is done by Messrs. Hyde & Norval, both very experienced workmen, the former only recently from England and brought here especially for this work. The stones used for jewels are “aqua marine”, “garnet”, “sapphire” and “ruby”, generally the first two named. The rough stones, as they are found are sawn into thin, minute slabs by means of a gang saw, the revolving blades of which are set charged with diamond dust. These slabs are again cut either into long slender pencils for “pallet” stones or into square bits for jewels. As the former use requires little change in their form and little treatment other than polishing, by means of diamond dust, it is comparatively uninteresting. Jewel cutting is, however fall of intere. The workmen uses a lathe and a series of tools, either rough diamonds or steel points charged with diamond dust. Taking up one of the small square or octagonal fragments, he fastens it firmly on the spindle of his lather, by means of shellac gum. Then with a large rough diamond, set in a brass tool, he wears the jewel perfectly round. Next he gives it a convex form. Flattens slightly the top of its convexity and drills a microscopical hole half way through. The stone must now be turned around, the hole bored through from the other side, a recess or little sloping made on the edge and then it must be polished to perfect level smoothness by rubbing it on a plate of glass. All this takes little more time to do than to describe, and it must needs to be quick, for the completed jewels are only worth ten or twelve cents each, but it must become fearfully monotonous to those who practice it for months and years. Still another pretty operation in this department is the hardening of the wire of which the hair springs are formed. It has been the practice hitherio to import hair springs from England, but this company now only import the wire and from the wire it make a quality of sprints superior to any in the market. In a little room connected with this department we are shown the model watch for the style now being made here, a “full plate” and we learn that the system on which the manufacture is carried on is to make by hand a perfect watch for a model and then to duplicate, as nearly as possible, all its parts for the thousands of its fellows which may be required. The next watch which the company will make, will be the “Raymond” watch, named after the President of the National Watch Company, and the model for this is now in hand. As fast as new styles are demanded they will be got up and as it is calculated that they will be able to make fifty watches per day when they get successful operation, we may expect to see their stock ere long filling the market. But to return to our tour of inspection. From the intricacies of the “train” department we gladly escape to the large and airy room on this floor where Mr. C. Bagley is doing the jewel setting business, and very interesting we find his work. He has little hollow brass sockets, pounds of them, in which he is to place jewels and by the aid of a curiously contrived gauge lathe he does this almost as rapidly as one can count. In old times, and even yet in some large establishments, the work is done by hand, so we have no little curiosity to see how it is effected so rapidly here. First fastening his setting in a sort of chuck, he lays the jewel he is about to place in it on a narrow steel shelf up aloft on the machine then he brings up against it a jawlike gauge which determines exactly the size of the hole which that particular jewel requires to hold it, and before one can say or at least write “Jack Robinson”, a slender steel hit has glided out, bored the hole and vanished into obscurity again, somewhere in the internals of the machine. It’s all very simple to tell one the bit is exactly half way from the jewel to the axle or dinge of the gauge, and as it cuts only on one side must necessarily make the hole just the size fo the jewel – the principle is there, but one cannot help admiring the thing. The jewel is placed in the setting, a burnisher rolls the brass around the edge upon the sloping shoulder on the flat side of the jewel, and the work is complete. Still another process, however, these jewels have to go through. The holes through them have to be made uniform in size, and polished out with diamond dust. To determine the regularity, a peculiar gauge is used, – a thing with a long tapering steel needle, thinner than a hair at its extremity. This needle is pushed into the hole in a jewel, shoved back as far as it will go and it registers, in twenty-five hundredths of an inch, just how large the hole is. No hole is too small for this thing to measure. If one could poke a hole in the edge of a shadow with a ray of sunlight, this gauge would tell the size of the aperture. Mr Bagley is the cunning inventory of this thing, and it certainly entitles him to high rand as  “a judge of small matters”

The guilding rooms are not yet in operation, so we have only one place more to see about the works. That is the “enamelling and painting” department, one where we can admire without being puzzled. Mr. John Webb, an Englishman, who used to be employed in the Waltham Manufactory, is the presiding genius here. In this country there are several men who understand “enamelling”, others who know how to “paint”, and some who posses the art of “sinking”, but they have all been taught by Mr. Wenn, and he is probably the only one in the United States who practices and is a master in all the several branches of art connected with the production of a finished watch dial. He is at present instructing several men and girls here in the business, so that in the event of any accident to him, his art may not be lost. Let us as closely as possible, describe the various processes carried on in this room. The dial plates are of pure copper. Each has three “feet” or pins, soldered firmly to it by a very simple but ingenious process, and when this is done is ready for the enameler. The enamel, which costs about $6 per pound, is imported from England in great chunks, not unlike board spires of milky gases and is composed of a mixture of sand, nitre, white lead, borax, arsenic, iron and tin. To prepare it for use, it is finely powdered and kept in water. The enameler first lays on a coat of this paste, of powdered enamel and watcher, on the back of the dial plate, to prevent sudden heat or cold blistering or cracking the upper surface. Then, with a broad square ended knife he smoothly lays on the surface enamel, touching it from time to time on a smooth white cloth to draw the dampness, as much as possible, from the paste. It is then placed on the floor of the furnace where it dries, and from there is moved up to the over where, at a white heat, the enamel melts and gives a perfectly smooth glassy surface. About sixty per hour may be baked in one oven. There are two ovens here. Only one of which is used. The smooth enamelled plate is now marked off at regular distance, and the figures and points are painted on with black enamel, which is afterwards baked in. This painting is very delicate work, and the artist who executes it here Mr. Wm. Mealand, as been brought over from England especially for this purpose. It is all done with the finest brushed, even the minute letting of “National Watch Co., Elgin” which appears on the face of each dial, in characters one-fourth the size of those in which this sketch is printed, is done by the brush. Great steadiness of hand, skill of touch and clearness of sight are of course requisite for this work, but two or three girls to whom the art is being taught  here, give promise of becoming adepts in it at no very distant day. Just here it me be remarked that girls show great aptitude for the delicate and painstaking processes of watch-making in all its various departments, some of them, indeed, ????? extraordinary mechanical talent, and that it is ??? in contemplation to have one-half or even two-thirds of the entire force employed, when the factory is in full working order, from the softer sex. They don’t get tired of monotonous work so soon as men do, and if they could only be kept from thinking about their sweethearts, would be perfect – as watchmakers. In painting the figures on the dial the VI is not put on, a machine cuts out the enamel from a circle which covers this point an acidecat away the copper plate, leaving a round hole, The “second dial” is made in precisely the same was as the large dial – cut out in the same way, and is then enameled on the under side of the large plate this leaving the “second dial” sunk below the level of the raft of the face of the watch. On some cheap watches and on many Swiss watches this sunken portion of the plate is merely stamped, not cut out but so fine a surface on the “second dial” can never be produced by this means as by that which we have described.

The process of putting the completed works of the watches together is not yet been begun here, so that we cannot describe it. In a few weeks, probably not more than a fortnight, this will be going on, and the first results of the energy and talent of the “National Watch Company” will be placed before the public.

The power used all through the factory is derived from a thirty-horse power engine, made in Fitchburg, Massachusetts , a very model of strength and beauty.

We have thus endeavored as briefly and at the same time as clearly as possible to sketch the rise, progress and present condition of one of the most interesting and noteworthy of the many great manufacturing enterprises in this vicinity. We have nothing further to offer in connection with it than an expression of our own hope and confidence that the company will meet with the complete success for which they have striven and which they so well deserve. If talent, experience, and utmost care can ever produce infallible chronometers, that desuahie end will be achieved by the “National Watch Company”, and we may expect ere long their time-pieces will be indispensable to every man and family in the country to who “time is an object”, who know that “time tries all”, or who have learned to “watch as well as pray”.