(Source: "The Home of the Waltham Watch," a factory issued pamphlet circa 1911)
By Kathryn Eident
We are surrounded by reminders of time; it’s everywhere. We see it in digital form on our cell phones, glowing on bedside alarm clocks and embedded in our kitchen gadgets. Time rides with us on our car radios, stares up at us from our wrists, and even peers down at us from the office wall. There’s no mistaking it; time-telling devices are an absolute necessity in this modern world.
But there was a time when a portable watch was a luxury. Pocket watches, produced individually by artisans, were usually reserved for the rich. In the late 1850s, however, a small local company devised a way to produce watch parts en masse, and suddenly, time pieces were everywhere.
That company was the Waltham Watch Factory, and the watch was the 57 P.S. Bartlett, a small, round, silver pocket watch with hundreds of individual parts.
“It was sort of the ‘Model T’ of watches,” said Dan Yaeger, executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry. “It was accurate, inexpensive, and it ran on interchangeable parts.”
One of these watches, along with some of the tools and artifacts of the Waltham Watch Factory, will be part of a permanent public exhibit set to open July 24th at the newly renovated Watch Factory building on Crescent Street. The project is being developed by the Charles River Museum of Industry and the Waltham Historical Society, with sponsorship from developers Watch City Ventures LLC.
Though the pocket watch may be no more than a few inches in diameter, open it up and inside you’ll find hundreds of tiny gears, springs, and plates, all fitted together, and many of them moving. One watch may have as many as 180 parts, and it would take more than 3,000 steps to bring the watch together, Yaeger said.
“The company attracted brilliant engineers; people skilled with Yankee ingenuity,” he said. “Machinery is the backbone of what this company’s all about.”
Workers at the Waltham Watch Factory used machines designed specially for watch-making, and could oversee multiple machines at once, cutting production time in half. The new production line could allow a watch to be made from start to finish within a working day, he said.
Once the pieces were fabricated, they would be sent over to an artisan to be assembled. It took years for a man to learn the art of making watches and earn his seat as an artisan, Yaeger said. While by new employees and even women often took the unskilled jobs, the high-skilled, high-paying watch assembly jobs were reserved for men with years of training.
“They had an elaborate training program,” he said. “If your mom, brother or some relation worked here, your chances were pretty good you could get a job here. Then you’d usually be set for life.”
The almost-finished time piece would then be delivered to a jeweler, who would fit the “watch movement”—a watch with everything but a case—with a custom case picked by the customer.
At the company’s peak, workers could produce up to 3,000 watches per day, and the factory was one of the largest employers in Waltham. The novelty of the production line and the quality of the watches brought visitors in from around the region, too.
But, like so many of its modern day industrial counterparts, in the end, the company’s inability to embrace innovation caused the company to stumble. The advent of the wrist watch in World War I was spurned by company officials, and the factory soon fell behind the competition.
“For a number of years [the factory] was pretty much the only game in the US,” he said. “[But] competition became difficult for the company. Their market share went down; the watch quality went down.”
The Waltham Watch Factory never quite recovered, he said, even though they succumbed to market pressures and began making wrist watches. In 1957 the company was broken up and moved out of the sprawling brick and glass complex on Crescent Street.
Today, the spirit of innovation and invention that brought success to the old Watch Factory owners will live on again. As the Globe recently reported, the complex has been renovated and will soon house new, high-tech businesses and condos.
“Someone from today could get into a time machine and have a conversation with their counterpart from 150 years ago would have something in common,” he said.
People interested in the Watch Factory’s colorful history will be able to see more than 50 photos and six displays of items from the time period in the lobby at 221 Crescent Street. Objects range from an original watch maker’s bench, to examples of the time pieces workers produced, to plates from the company cafeteria.
Watch Factory Exhibit
Friday, July 24th
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.