When it comes to professional tool watches, divers’ watches like the Submariner, and chronograph icons like the Speedmaster, get all the glory. However, railroad watches were important precision tools, too, used by the professionals who worked in railroad companies around the world. A lesser-known Longines tool watch, the RR280 (pictured left) provides a fascinating window into the world of railroad watches – its development and evolution from late 19th century up until the mid-20th century.
STANDARD TIME AND ITS ADOPTION
In the beginning of railroad transport in the U.S. and Canada, no importance was given to the adoption of a standard time as is norm in all modes of transport now. Every city, town and railroad had their own standard time.
The Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) was a pioneer of accurate timekeeping. It was the CPR chief engineer Sir Sandford Fleming who first proposed the concept of Worldwide Standard Time in February 1879.
North American and Canada Railroads started the concept of Standard Time in May 1872, when the Association of Railroad Superintendents, a forerunner of the Association of American Railroads, met at the Southern Hotel in St. Louis, U.S.
In November 1883, almost 600 railroad lines dropped the 53 arbitrary times they were using and adopted the Greenwich indexed meridians that defined the times in each of the four new time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific).
However, it took a national tragedy in the U.S. for the authorities to realize the importance of watch standardization and a watch inspection system. This followed a collision in April 1891 between two trains in Elyria, near Cleveland. Despite written orders to stop and let the fast train pass, the engineer and conductor of the passenger train did not notice that his watch was running four minutes late. As result, the two trains collided, resulting in the loss of lives.
During an inquiry into the incident, it was learned that the passenger train’s engineer was wearing a cheap alarm watch. As a result, expert witness Webb C Ball, a known jeweler from Cleveland, was tasked with setting up a watch inspection system for railroad companies.
Ball was appointed general watch inspector for many North American, Canadian and Mexican Railroads. He would go on to establish later his own eponymous watch company. Railroad companies set up the Time Service Department based on the system invented by Ball.
The general railroad timepiece standards have been adopted since 1893 and any watch used in rail service by railroaders responsible for schedules has to meet the following mechanical standards: “Be open face, size 18 or 16, have a minimum of 17 jewels, adjusted to minimum five positions, adjusted to temperatures of 34 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 to +38 grade Centigrade), steel escape wheel, lever set, micrometric regulation, Lépine caliber. Some Railroads wanted Breguet hairspring, adjusted to isochronism and 30 degree Fahrenheit and minimum of 19 jewels.”
The following requirements for railroad-approved watches were set by RD Montgomery, general inspector of Santa Fé Railway system in 1930: “The regulation watch designated as of 1930 to be standard is described as follows: 16 size , American, lever-setting, 19 jewels or more, open face, winding at ‘12’, double-roller escapement, steel escape wheel, adjusted to five positions, temperature and isochronism, which will rate within a variation not exceeding 6 seconds in 72 hours tests, pendant up, dial up and dial down, and to be regulated to run within a variation not exceeding 30 seconds per week”.
Canadian Pacific and Canadian National sourced approved Swiss brands, both pocket and wristwatches. U.S. railroad companies opted for American watches, probably down to a traditional policy of “buying American” although some exceptions are known. According to a Wittnauer Material catalogue from 1911, Longines pocketwatches were used by U.S. railroad staff.
An exception is the Longines Ref T905, a railroad wristwatch that was on the Union Pacific Railroad approved list. More on this model later.
Interestingly, the railroad staff were compelled to buy these approved timepieces at their own costs. At CPR, the cost was deducted monthly from salaries in three-months installments. According to regulations, if the watch fell behind or gained 30 seconds in seven or 14 days it was required to be submitted for overhauling or repairs. Small cards were given to the engineers and conductors, the railroad timekeepers, and a complete record of the watch’s performances was written in ink.
All repairs, overhauling and adjustments were made by approved and experienced watchmakers. All the time keeping activity was subject to inspection by authorized inspectors. When a watch was under service, the CPR used to supply to his employees a temporary watch called “the loaner”. Watches were numbered and marked “Loaner” on the back case and in the event of a lost loaner, the cost of the watch was charged to the employee.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DIALS
When first adopted in 1893, the regulations regarding dials stated, “Use plain Arabic numbers printed bold and black on a white dial, and have bold and black hands.” Though there were some elaborate enamel dials during the era, the railroad dials were more about being functional and legible.
The first dial design patented in the U.S. was the “Ferguson dial”. This dial emphasized the minutes over the hours – it featured large black Arabic numerals at the 5 minute marks on the main chapter ring, and an inner chapter ring printed in red that numbered the hours 1 through to 12 – and was patented in 1908 by LB Ferguson of Monroe, Louisiana. It wasn’t very popular because of issues with legibility.
In 1920, the Montgomery Safety Dial was invented by Henry S Montgomery, the General Watch and Clock Inspector from 1896 to 1923 for the Santa Fe Railway. The “Monty Dial” as it was referred to by collectors, featured an outer track with individual minutes numbered from 1 to 60. It is learned that Ball pursued legal action against the Monty dial stating his dials were the only approved ones.
The “Canadian dial” was adopted by the CPR in 1883. This featured 24-hour markings with double Arabic numerals. There was an internal ring of Arabic numerals with 24-13 hours (first printed in black and later in red) and an outer ring that marked the hours from 1 to 12.
This dial configuration came to be known as the“Canadian dial” or “Canadian railroad dials”. The same dial was adopted by Canadian National Railways (CNR), who was also known to use a version where the hour indexes started from 0-11 and 12-23 on the internal ring.
LONGINES AND CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAYS
Longines-Wittnauer was the exclusive agent for U.S. and Canada in 1876. The pocketwatches Longines Express Monarch and Express Leader were on the first CPR-approved list since October 1899. There seems to be no record of the list of approved wristwatches but we can assume it was done around 1960 (the last addition on approved pocketwatches is dated 1957).
The list of approved wristwatches includes Cyma, Girard-Perregaux, Universal and Zenith besides Longines. The Longines RR280 references 7186 and 8303 were produced specifically for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE LONGINES RR280
The Longines RR280, or the “Canadian” as it has also come to be called, is a lesser-known vintage model. Thanks to its Sixties styling and slim 35 mm case, many collectors tend to overlook this watch, one of the best that Longines ever made.
The American variant – the aforementioned T905 Longines Railroad watch – retailed for $115 in 1964. The name RR280 is a reference to “Railroad” and Calibre 280 that serves as the movement of the watch. It was undoubtedly produced in small numbers. The Ref: 7186 was made in three or maybe four batches of production (7186-1;-2;-3). Having crunched a few numbers, I’m of the opinion that production of these Longines watches is under 1,000 pieces. Reference 8303 followed Ref. 7186 and was in steel with a gold bezel.
CASE: A stainless steel monoblock 35 mm case that was both waterproof and featuring an anti-magnetic inner case. It featured a screwed caseback just like in the Longines Jamboree. The caseback has six rectangular notches for a specific opening key and has the movement serial number engraved on it. Be aware that this light engraving is sometimes lost to over polishing of the case. The case itself is fully polished, only the notches and satin ring is brushed. Inside the caseback is stamped Longines Watch & Co – stainless steel – ref.7186-(1;2;3) and case number. The watch has faceted lugs that are slim and elegant. This case was produced by La Centrale SA/Hubert manufacturers. The only difference in the ref. 8303 is a 14k gold bezel, gold-plated crown.
DIAL: The dials of RR280 ref. 7186 and 8303 feature a white matte lacquered enameled look (façon émail). On the reverse of the dial are stamped the letters ‘R’ and a star symbol (indicating it was made by dial maker Stern Frère) and 71 (the number attributed to Stern client Longines). The dial features the classic “Canadian dial” layout. The white gold Longines logo sits below the name in bold capitals. The marking R.R.280 is seen at 6 o’ clock. The “Swiss” marking is also visible at 6 within the chapter ring. Ref. 8303 uses a yellow gold applied logo to match the bezel. The dial itself is believed to have an anti-magnetic shield, according to a Longines catalogue from the Sixties. Ref: T905 made for the U.S. market had a slightly different dial layout (see pic).
HANDS: Both references have black, baton hands that are easily readable against the white dial. The seconds hand is thin but legible. One version (dial reference 11-696) has “Pacific” hands. This is a dual time watch with one-hour hand in red and the other in black. This was used by employees operating in two time zones.
MOVEMENT: This was based on Calibre 280 launched in 1959. It was a size 11 and ¾ and had a 2.75 Hz (19,800 vph) escapement adjusted at five positions. In the Ref: T905, it was adjusted to three positions, temperature and isochronism.
It had a stop-second device to precisely set time. It featured a Glucydur balance wheel without compensating screws and a Breguet hairspring with a swan neck regulator. It had the same level of accuracy as a certified chronometer.
Very few RR280 are out there now. In my 20 years of collecting watches, I’ve seen no more than three pieces in good condition, though I have seen a couple with reprinted dials. In my opinion, the value of RR280 is underrated. This is a fine example of high-quality manufacturing from Longines (a level it has rarely reached since) to create a great tool watch for railroad professionals.