Friday, October 14, 2016

Elgin National Watch Factory

(Update: Lost Illinois Manufacturing posted a long write up with pictures and a trade chart.)

Brian Morgan posted
The year was 1955 and the Roarin Elgins clock is beginning to wind down. This an ironic photo of car # 401 racing past the Elgin Watch manufacturing plant in Elgin, Illinois on a brisk cloudy day. This photo say's a lot about irony in both transportation and business.
Bob Bresse-Rodenkirk Business at the watch factory was also winding down.
What caught my eye in this photo was the "Elgin Watches" sign.

1939 Aerial Photo from ILHAP
Because the Watch Factory Depot still exists, I was able to find where the factory was in 1938. It was south of National St. The railroad that went by the depot on the east side was a branch of the UP/C&NW. The Chicago, Aurora  & Elgin interurban used to run along the river. It is now the Fox River Trail.

The company was founded in 1864. Elgin donated 35 acres of land so that it would operate in that city. "The Elgin National Watch Company was for a time, one of the largest industrial concerns in the world." Elgin was one of the first watch manufactures to use the principles of mass production such as special tooling and interchangeable parts. This allowed them to make high-quality watches in great numbers at relatively affordable prices. They also had organized quality control. These practices are now considered standard practice, but in 1864 they were still revolutionary. The interchangeable parts also made them easy to repair. "The company introduced more than half the watches made in America from 1920-1928. An Elgin advertisement in 1928 claimed that there were more than 14,418 retail jewelers in the United States and all but 12 carried Elgin watches." The photo below is the final stage of the plant's growth. "At its peak it employed over 4500 people, more than half of which were women." The plant was vertically integrated. "Trainloads of raw material - iron ore, gold, brass, leather, rubber, oil, everything - came in, and finished watches came out. The Elgin shops literally made the machines that made the machines that made watches, from the most basic materials, all under one roof." The entire complex was destroyed in 1966 because jeweled watches were replaced by battery operated quartz watches. [ElginTime] (I could believe they received iron, but I find it hard to believe that they received iron ore. That would mean they also had to receive coal and limestone and have a blast furnace.) They made just watch movements. Up until the 1920s it was common for the local watchmaker or jeweler to fit the movement into a customer selected watch case.

The building for the Watchmakers' College has also been torn down. But the observatory built in 1910 to set their two chronographs that could keep time within 10-hundredths of a second still stands. It is owned by the city and operated by the school district. [ElginTime]

During their production run of over 100 years, they produced almost 60 million watches, which is nearly half of all the jeweled watches produced by American watch companies. During their peak years the were producing over a million watches. [PocketWatchRepair]

Since 1910 was long before atomic clocks were developed, the effort to achieve an accuracy within a tenth of a second is worth noting. An operator would set at the telescope and watch for the transit of a particular star across, I presume, a line placed in the field of view.
At the moment of the transit, the observer would press a button activating an electrical relay and setting two Riefler chronographs to exact time. 
The chronographs were kept in a separate room which only two people were allowed to enter at a time in order to avoid temperature shifts. The room was heated to a constant 81 degrees by dozens of light bulbs all around the room. Each light bulb had an individual thermostat turning it on and off as needed to maintain temperature. To control air pressure, each chronograph was sealed in a glass enclosure connected to an apparatus allowing air to be pumped in or out as needed.. Each clock was mounted on a concrete pier that extended down into the ground 60 feet. The exact time, within 10-hundredths of a second, was transmitted electrically from this facility to the factory.  Thus, using this facility, Elgin was able to accurately measure time to within hundredths of a seconds, and update clocks in the main building. Elgin operated this system until 1958 when technology began providing better methods. [ElginTime]
A 60-foot concrete pier would not be needed to hold the weight of the Rieflier Clock. I assume the purpose of a deep pier is to avoid movement due to surface vibrations such as a train passing by or lightning striking close by. A Riefler Clock was a pendulum clock and the National Institute of Standards and Technology purchased one in 1904 as its first technology for accurate time keeping. The "better methods" was an atomic clock: "1958 -- Commercial cesium clocks become available, costing $20,000 each." "1967 -- The 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures defines the second on the basis of vibrations of the cesium atom; the world’s timekeeping system no longer has an astronomical basis." [NSIT timeline]

I include this engraving because it is another example that black smoke was considered a symbol of prosperity in the 1800s.

David Hahn posted
CA&E National Street Platform, Elgin, IL - Beside the Elgin National Watch Factory
Jerry Hund Did the name National Street station (CA&E and Metra Milwaukee West Line) come from the Elgin National Watch Company?David Hahn I believe so. On a non railfan note, one of the cool things about the watch factory was the observatory they had to set the time according to the stars. It's still there and is now a planetarium fir the school district.Jim Kelling You can ride in a car like this at the Illinois Railroad Museum.
Metra posted
The top photo was taken at National Street in Elgin in 1959 and shows a commuter train passing by the Elgin National Watch Company. The bottom picture was taken at the same location in 2016 with Metra Locomotive 215 carrying passengers along the Milwaukee District West line. 
Chuck Edmonson posted
When the Elgin Watch Co. began operations in the Fox River town of Elgin after moving from Chicago around 1866, the village became known as the 'Geneva of the West,' as it was felt it was the answer to the great Swiss watchmakers. From a 1873 publication, this drawing of the early plant. Sorry for the poor quality of the photo, it comes from a rather large old volume.
Hayden B. Baldwin One of the inventors that worked for the Elgin Watch Company was a man named Fed Francis from Kewanee, IL. He had so many patents while working at the Elgin Watch Co. that he retired at 32 ! More about him here, Behrends During WWII they made parts for 4.2 mortar rounds fuzes that were assembled at Fenzel Fuse in Huntley.

Steve OConnor The Elgin National Watch Company was the largest site dedicated to watchmaking in the world. At its peak it employed over 4500 people, more than half of which were women. By the end of the '20's the American watch industry was in trouble. Domestic production had dropped from 1,815,438 movements in 1923 to 1,757,282 in 1928. Imports, mainly from Switzerland, Jumped during this same period from 2,019,000 to 4,375,000. Of the thirty-five manufacturers which had once been in production, only five-Elgin, Waltham, Hamilton, Illinois, and Howard were left. In 1929 daily production at the watch factory was cut back from four thousand movements to thirty-five hundred, and the Saturday half-day was eliminated, reducing hours to forty per week for the first time in years.

In the spring of 1931, when local unemployment was estimated at 2,500, the chairman of the committee reported enough destitution to "bring tears to the eyes of men." One case had already shaken the community. A watch worker whose time had been reduced couldn't meet the payments on his St. Charles Street home. It was foreclosed, and the day before the property was to be surrendered, he and his wife committed suicide.

To worsen the situation the Swiss producers began evading customs. In 1932, for example, federal inspectors uncovered twenty-two bales of duty-free rabbit skins, each containing at its center from one thousand to fifteen hundred Swiss timepieces. Duties could be evaded by importing movements without an essential part. In that condition, the rate was lower and the missing part later could be restored at a small cost. After entry eighteen-jewel plates could be substituted for plates with a smaller number of jewels, a process called upjeweling.

A reciprocal trade agreement with Switzerland went into effect on February 15, 1936. Duties on watches were cut an average of thirty-four percent below the 1930 rates, but the tariff still amounted to fifty-three percent ad valorem. Above seventeen jewels, the tariff of $10.75 remained unchanged. The Swiss, in turn, lowered their tariffs and quotas on American goods, including wheat, lard, canned vegetables, chewing gum, typewriters and office equipment. Prior to this agreement, the domestic industry had about fifty-three percent of the American jeweled watch market; from 1936 to 1941, the U. S. manufacturers' share of the market declined to about thirty-nine percent. Aided by government subsidies, the Swiss led in technological innovations.
With the start of WW II the U.S. watch industry was ordered by the government to stop all watch production and switch to war production. During this time, Switzerland was neutral and thus spared the ordeal of committing its own industry to war production and due to the U.S. governments' inaction, flooded the American market and gained a monopoly. Beginning in March, 1944, the American producers petitioned the government for relief from this avalanche of Swiss imports who had devalued their currency on top of having labor rates that were 2-1/2 times less than American labor rates. For 25 months, Washington did nothing, during which the Swiss had captured over 95% control of the U.S. watch market and a complete monopoly of the machinery needed to make watches. After this 25 month delay, in April, 1946 the governments' only action was to "limit" the Swiss importation to the highest level they had attained during the war.

Steve OConnor To add further insult to injury and make a mockery of the U.S. governments' responsibility to safeguard American industry, Washington did nothing when the Swiss government refused to allow the sale of watch producing machinery to the United States. During the war, the U.S. industry had worn out its equipment for war production and now needed to replace it but the Swiss would only "lease" that new equipment. In June, 1946 the Report of the Chamber of Swiss Horology stated -
"Switzerland has no intention of selling horological machines. She intends to rent them under set conditions which conform to the aim of our general horological policy. She will then be able to exert a certain control over foreign watch industries."
Yet the U.S. government put no such conditions on the sale of American machine tools that the Swiss needed to make their watch machinery.
The domestic industry faltered before this aggressive competition. At the end of 1948, Waltham laid off its twenty-three hundred workers and attempted a financial reorganization. In April 1950, Elgin laid off about three hundred, evenly divided between Elgin and Lincoln, and went on a four-day week schedule.
"How far can you shrink?" asked Walter Cenerazzo, president of the American Watch Workers Union when pleading for a higher tariff before a congressional committee. "We are going to die." Waltham went into receivership in 1949, reorganized and was bankrupt again the next year.

A company built on time was winding down. Each year, a part ceased to function. The observatory was abandoned in 1955. The Watch Word stopped publication in 1956. The last dividend was paid in 1957. In 1958, the Lincoln plant, which then employed eight hundred fifty, was shut down and its operations consolidated at Elgin. The Watchmakers College closed its doors in 1960. In an attempt to cut costs, an assembly plant was opened in Blaney, South Carolina, in 1963. The town was so eager to get the factory that it changed its name to Elgin. The main plant in Illinois supplied the southern operation with parts. When the company observed its centennial in 1964, only about 900 were still on watch work in Elgin.

Death throes of the company began in 1965, symbolically marked by a stoppage of the tower clock due to freezing temperatures. Losses for the fiscal year were a staggering $6.8 million. The remaining local employees dropped to about 400. The main plant, declared obsolete, was sold. The clock mechanism was dismantled and shipped to a museum. The abandoned plant was opened to the public for the sale of fixtures. Throngs of former employees, many with tear-filled eyes, took a last, sad walk through once-busy rooms now in disarray. A wrecking crew began razing the plant in the early summer of 1966, working from the back toward the front, a century after the first building had been erected on the site. One by one, the sections collapsed into rubble, until only the tower remained. Then, on Sunday morning, October 3rd, dynamite charges brought the landmark crashing down into a pile of bricks, mortar and twisted metal. Only the main entrance posts were left standing to remind passers-by of what had once been the world's largest watch producer.

Chuck Edmonson posted eight photos with the comment: "From the October 1873 edition of The Land Owner, a series of drawings depicting skilled workers plying their trade at the Elgin Watch Co."








John Smith posted a Sanborn Map of the building and four historical photos.

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