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  • Robert Farago

The Truth About The Ball Railway Watch

The true origin of the expression "on the Ball"

According to most accounts, the American railroad watch was born on April 18, 1891. On that fateful day, a fast mail train collided with the Toledo Express at Kipton Station, 40 miles west of Cleveland, Ohio. The head-on collision destroyed both engines, three mail cars and one baggage car.

All the victims worked for the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway. The Bismarck Daily Tribune North Dakota reported that the accident was a bloody mess.

Bodies were all horribly crushed and mutilated, arms and legs being torn off, and corpses were almost beyond recognition.
Kipton train crash
CHARLES TOPLIFF, the engineer of the fast mail, was found with his hand on the throttle, dead. His hands and face were so badly scalded that blackened flesh dropped from his bones when his body was taken out.
Fireman STEALY of the fast mail jumped from the train and died soon afterwards. The postal clerks had not a chance to escape, they were caged like rats and the telescoping cars crushed the life out of them without a moment’s warning.

Historians blame the engineer’s pocket watch for the collision. Here’s a typical account:

From the time the train left Elyria until it collided with the Fast Mail at Kipton, the conductor , as he admitted afterward, did not take his watch out of his pocket.
He said that he supposed the engineer would look out for No.4. But the engineer’s watch stopped for four minutes and then began running again, a little matter of life and death of which he was unconscious.
Kipton train depot
There were several stations between Elyria and Kipton, but the engineer pounded his train slowly along in the belief that he had time to spare. Leaving Oberlin, he supposed he had seven minutes in which to reach the meeting point.
Of course, he had only three minutes. Had the conductor looked at his own watch he could have prevented the accident. 

That’s one theory, notably absent from the official report by Hon. T. A. Norton, Commissioner of Railroads and Telegraphs.

If the watch wasn’t to blame for the crash, the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway would have been on the hook for a huge payout to the victims’ families.

Kipton Train Wreck 4

The final determination took the form of a court case against the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway.

To convince the jury that the engineer’s pocket watch caused the crash, the Railway called in an expert: former watchmaker and Cleveland jewelry store-owner Webster Clay Ball.

Ball’s testimony saved the Railway’s proverbial bacon. The company immediately hired their star witness as their new “Chief Time Inspector.” It wasn’t Ball’s first such assignment, but it was by far the most important.

Antique Lakeshore and Michigan Southern Railway map

Ball spent four months studying the extensive railway’s timekeeping system. He was appalled by the dangerous lack of uniformity across the network.

I found that the conductors on the freight train of trunk lines were depending on cheap alarm clocks hung on nails In their cabooses. Many merchants at that period were giving away bad watches with suits of clothing and furnishing goods, and engineers and conductors had such watches in their pocket, and were actually running trains by them, to the menace of human life and property. Some of the clocks in roundhouses and in train dispatchers’ offices hadn’t been cleaned, or regulated for years. 

Ball emerged from his fact-finding mission with eight specifications for all future Railway’s pocket watches.

Amongst other things, the watch had to have a white dial with black markings, operate at 34F to 100F, provide +/-30 seconds per week accuracy and be lever set (to change the time, the case has to be removed and a lever activated).

Two years later, Mr. Ball’s strictures were codified in the General Railroad Timepiece Standards and disseminated to railway companies across America. The publication marked the beginning of Webb C. Ball’s railway pocket watch empire.

Railway watch - Web C. Ball's stationary 2
Ball built an organized watch inspections system which grew into the Ball Railroad Time Service to ensure watch accuracy on a number of railroads. The actual inspectors were the same jewelers who were Ball Watch Co. dealers to whom Ball was distributing watches and jewelry. Mr. Ball not only set and enforced railway watch standards, he started a watch company to supply pocket watches to the market he serviced through his exclusive contracts. A network that grew to include multiple railways across the entire West, up into Canada and down into Mexico.

Ball marketed his trademark “Official RR Standard” pocket watches to the general public. The move stepped on his suppliers’ toes (famous makers all). But they couldn’t risk losing the Ball Watch Co.’s enormous purchase orders.

Buoyed by its safety-focused advertising, Ball watches and accuracy became synonymous – “on the Ball” remains an expression for someone doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

By 1908, some 2000 Ball-authorized watch inspectors/dealers checked and serviced over a million watches for 180 railroads. Mr. Ball became a national figure.

Webb C. Ball interview

In January 1910, he granted an interview to the New York Tribune.

It was here – nineteen years after the Kipton crash – that Mr. Ball mooted the unproven, highly improbable but not entirely impossible idea that Engineer Bacon’s pocket watch stopped and then restarted, leading to the Kipton crash.

A suggestion that captured the public’s imagination and became accepted “fact.”


Mr. Ball’s historic fame stems from the myth surrounding the Ohio train tragedy, and the mistaken view that the jeweler was a cutting edge innovator. Even so, you can’t argue with the entrepreneur’s assessment of his impact on American watchmaking.

“Watches were never so cheap as now and never so accurate,” Mr. Ball told The Trib. “I am sure that the standards I have established for railroad purposes have greatly helped to bring the American watch to its present state of regularity and precision.”

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