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  • Robert Farago

The Waltham Pocket Watch Made America Great

American mass production started in Waltham, MA – of all places

Waltham pocket watch on stairs

The Waltham pocket watch story begins in 1812 with the birth of Aaron Lufkin Dennison. Raised in the prosperous seaport of Brunswick, Maine, the cobbler’s son soon learned his father’s trade. As a teenager, Dennison suggested making shoes in identical batches, rather than one-by-one. It didn’t happen. But the idea of mass production stayed with him . . .

At 18, Dennison began an apprenticeship with Brunswick clock and watchmaker, gunsmith, and gold and silversmith James Cary. At the time, clocks and watches were imported from England and France.

They were handmade, expensive, unreliable, delicate and expensive. If a piece broke, you sent abroad for a replacement, repaired it or made another.

Dennison proved himself a talented watchmaker and dependable employee. At 21, he turned down a partnership with Cary. Dennison left The Pine Tree State for the big city. He spent his early career in Boston and New York City, working for some of America’s best clock and watchmakers.

Aaron Dennison

Dennison was a devout Swedenborgian Christian and a restless soul. He drifted in and out of jobs and started several businesses: watch repair, a jewelry store, creating and selling the Dennison Combined Gauge.  The one business that succeeded – making jewelry boxes with his brother – failed to capture his imagination.

Boston Watch Company Roxbury, MA

At the age of 37, Dennison devised a plan to mass produce watches using interchangeable parts. He presented his idea and a prototype pocket watch to Edward Howard of Howard & Davis, a thriving manufacturer of wall clocks, sewing machines and fire engines.

With financing from Howard’s father-in-law – small arms maker Samuel Curtis – Dennison, Howard & Davis built a pocket watch factory in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Quick digression . . .

Flintlock mechanism

Mass production dates back at least 12,000 years. (Neolithic entrepreneurs mass produced flint axes and daggers.)

Mass production using interchangeable parts has obvious advantages: it reduces material and replacement costs and uses less skilled (i.e. expensive) labor. But it requires new tools to make identical parts and a willingness to abandon traditional ways of working.

Mass production using interchangeable parts finally arrived in the 18th century, when French gunsmith Honoré LeBlanc figured it out. Thomas Jefferson visited LeBlanc’s workshop in 1789. Somehow the concept made its way to Eli Whitney.

The cotton gin inventor turned gunmaker secured a U.S. government contract to mass produce 10k muskets with interchangeable parts. In 1806, Whitney finally delivered the guns to the Jefferson administration.

Howard, Davis & Dennison pocket watch

Forty-six years later, Aaron Dennison’s mass production efforts were a disaster. The “finished” watches (number three above) were stunning – but they had to be repaired and significantly reworked at the end of the process.

The watches had accuracy issues. They couldn’t compete with foreign imports on price.

Howard, Davis & Dennison pocket watch movement

With the help of skilled machinist Charles Moseley and designer N.P. Stratton, the Warren Manufacturing Company improved and streamlined production. The company manufactured and sold hundreds of relatively robust pocket watches.

Boston Watch Company factory Waltham

In 1854, two years after formation, the renamed Boston Watch Company moved to Waltham, Massachusetts to escape the dust interfering with watch movements, and expand production.

With the Charles River providing a flow of clean air, with Dennison as factory supervisor, the watchmaker picked up the pace.

Three years later, after producing approximately 5000 pocket watch movements and 4000 cases, with 1300 movements in production, the Boston Watch Company fell victim to The Panic of 1857. The depression swept the country and killed demand. Dennison’s brainchild went bankrupt.

New York businessman Royal Robbins owner of Waltham pocket watch company

Enter New York businessman Royal E. Robbins. Robbins bought the Boston Watch Company at auction and set about making Dennison’s vision a profitable reality.

With Robbins’ leadership and financial resources, the renamed Appleton Tracy & Company applied the discipline and research and development needed to perfect what’s come to be known as the American system of manufacturing (also called “armory practices” in deference to gunmakers’ production methods)

American Watch 1857

The Waltham pocket watch Model 1857 (above) was the American System’s fully-fledged realization: beautiful, reliable and priced beneath its competition. It was an immediate hit.

In January 1859, Robbins celebrated his company’s success by renaming the enterprise yet again – changing from the American Watch Company to the Waltham Watch Company.

In 1861, Robbins fired Dennison, who went on to form three more watch-related companies, the last of which – the Dennison Watch Case Company – was a significant success.

Parts of the Waltham pocket watch

It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the Waltham Watch Company’s achievement. Firearms can be produced with fairly loose tolerances and still function. There’s precious little margin of error for pocket watch production.

Many pocket watch parts are minuscule. All have to be produced to tight tolerances. To make that happen at scale, Waltham had to design and build machine tools for each part. The machines had to be run by highly skilled labor.

Assembly required equal care and precision – and constant supervision. If one part was out of specification and/or improperly assembled, it could defeat the entire assembly line. In short, the mass production of the Waltham pocket watch was a Herculean effort.

Waltham Watch factory

It’s also hard to overstate the importance of the Waltham pocket watch. Waltham was the first company in history to use an assembly line with standardized parts to create a finished product from raw materials.

As Waltham’s highly trained and experienced employees left to start their own assembly lines, the American system spread throughout the country, into every area of manufacturing. Visitors to “Watch City”- such as a young Henry Ford – replicated the watchmaker’s success on an epic scale.

You could say the Waltham Watch Company was the Silicon Valley of its day. The rise in the watchmaker’s economic fortunes are not dissimilar, helped in no small part by a government contract during the Civil War (where a William Ellery model played a pivotal role in defeating the Confederacy).

Waltham pocket watch rear

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the birth of the American pocket watch, it’s that Waltham’s inventors, investors and developers were men who suffered serious setbacks and disappointments – and didn’t give up.

American-made pocket watches are both the embodiment and a symbol of our nation’s belief in hard work, faith and perseverance. While some may decry the system that enabled their efforts, we owe the Waltham Watch Company a tremendous debt of gratitude for our country’s power, prestige and prosperity.

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