History of the Hamilton Watch Company

By Morgan Denyer

Figure 1The history of the Hamilton Watch company goes back to 1886 when Figure 2Abram Bitner bought the Lancaster Pennsylvania Watch Company factory to establish the Keystone Standard Watch Company. The keystone Watch company developed a 18-size, 3/4-plate movement, with 15 jewels that incorporated a patented dust-proofing system (Figure 1) and was accurate enough to for use on the railroads. Unfortunately the company struggled and was eventually auctioned at a Sheriffs sale to a group of Pennsylvanian businessmen (J. W. B.Bausman, John F. Brimmer, Harry B. Cochran, Frank P. Coho, C. A. Fondersmith, George M. Franklin, John Sener, John C. Hager, J. F. McCaskey, H. M. North, Martin Ringwalt, J. Frederick Sener, William Z. Sener, James Shand, Peter T. Watt and H. S. Williamson. Charles D. Rood and Henry J. Cain of the Aurora Watch company) following its bankruptcy in 1892. The new company merged with the Aurora Watch Company of Illinois and was given the name The Hamilton Watch Company in honour of James Hamilton, a local and important historical figure who served as an elected member of the Provincial Assembly, was the Mayor in 1745, and was commissioned by the Penn family to function as lieutenant-governor on a number of occasions between 1754 and 1773. James Hamilton also owned large tracts of land granted to him by the Penn family and he used some of that land to build the State House and surrounding public spaces. He has been credited with founding the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The Hamilton Watch Company was set up with the aim of manufacture watches of the highest quality. The company didn’t have the resources to compete with the American watch making giants of the time (Waltham and Elgin) but what they could do, by producing very high quality watches, was to try and corner the railway watch market. The very first model they produced in 1893, a size 18, 17 jewel pocket watch did just that. This first watch, the Broadway, not only became known as “The watch of the Railway”, but was also the official timepiece of all U.S. Expeditionary Forces by the turn of the 20th century.  It was the Broadway and the later 21 jewel 992 Figure 2) railway grade movement that accounted for the majority of Hamilton sales during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Figure 3WW1 resulted in a need for a new type of watch, the Figure 4wristwatch or trench watch. Hamilton being a provider of watches for the US military very quickly produced its first trench watch in 1917 (Figure 3 & 4). This watch was based around an 0-sized (1 inch) 17-jewel 983 movement which was initially designed for use in ladies watches (see http://www.hamiltonchronicles.com/2013/05/1918-aviators-watch-trench-watch.html), the movements of these watches were even signed Lady Figure 5Hamilton. Hamilton produced 6900 of these movements and only about 1500 were cased as trench/aviators watches. They were quickly replaced in 1919 by men’s watches incorporating the O sized 981 calibre or 985 calibre movements. However, it seems that Hamilton couldn’t manufacture these watches fast enough to keep up with demand. The problem lay in the fact that the Hamilton watches were of an extremely high quality and were thus time consuming and expensive to manufacture. It is possible that Hamilton chose to manufacture high-grade wrist watches because to do otherwise could have damaged their brand and their major market, the railroads (see http://www.vintage-hamilton-wristwatches.com/2013/05/when-did-hamilton-make-its-first-gents.html). Hamilton continued to grow in the 1920s, buying the Illinois Watch Company in 1927/28 and as a result of this expanded its range to include numerous lovely Art Deco wrist watches including the stunning and very highly desirable Piping Rock (Figure 5).

Figure 6By 1939 WW2 had started in Europe and Hamilton Figure 7started to produce wristwatches that by modern standards would be more recognisable. Many of these were designed with almost an anticipation of future involvement in conflict. For example in 1940 Hamilton produced its first watch with a central sweep second hand, the Hamilton Sentinel (Figure 6). This watch contained a 17 jewel 987S calibre hack movement, in which the pulling out of the crown to set the watch stopped the second hand. Figure 8This of course enabled the synchronisation of watches. Talk about reading the market, Hamilton’s timing was perfect. In 1942, following the entry of the USA into WW2, Hamilton ceased producing watches for the civilian market and instead produced a million or more watches for the troops being sent to Europe and the Pacific. These watches were often equipped with movements incorporating the hack mechanism, originally used in the Hamilton Sentinel. After the war many of the designs used in the WW2 military watches were retained in military style dress watches, such as the beautiful 14K solid gold Hamilton Secometer. (Figure 7) The period after the WW2 also saw a return to the manufacture of lovely slim tank watches and Hamilton excelled in the production of some superb watches such as the Hamilton Donald (Figure 8).

The post war period witnessed an increasing wealth and the race to produce the first electric watch. Hamilton, apparently in response to rumours that Elgin were working on the development of an electric watch (http://www.electric-watches.co.uk/make/hamilton/index/), started Project X in 1946. This eventually resulted  in Hamilton unveiling the worlds first battery powered electric watch, the 14K solid gold Ventura in 1957 and soon after the 14 K yellow and white gold filled Pacer (Figure 9). These watches was something new, the design was striking and had its origins in the emerging space age. These watches were incredibly popular, even Elvis had one. Unfortunately the first Hamilton electric movement, the 500 was a bit unreliable, watch makers were un-used to them and refused to service them, so many were sent back to the manufacturer. Modifications of the 500 led to the development of the much more reliable 505 movement in 1962 and this was manufactured right up until 1969, when Hamilton finally admitted the superiority of Bulova’s Acutron. Despite the unreliability of the Hamilton electric watches they are still highly desirable, although there are only a very few specialist dealers/repairers such as the UK Electric Watch Guru Paul Wirdnam (http://www.electric-watches.co.uk/) who can service and repair them.Figure 9

During the Hamilton Electric watch period, Hamilton changed its logo to a stylised H symbolic of the electric watch era (Figure 10). However, Hamilton continued to make very high grade mechanical watches Figure 10during this period. In 1966 hamilton bought the Buren factory in Switzerland giving rise toHamilton Buren. This allowed Hamilton to incorporate the highly inventive Buren micro rotor blade into its automatic watches. Hamilton stopped making watches in the US in 1969, and shifted their watch making to the Hamilton Buren manufacturing base. By 1972, the Hamilton Buren association had dissolved and Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH – Omega & Tissot) bought the Hamilton brand. Via the merger of SSIH and ASUAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG) which gave rise to SMH (Swiss Corporation for Microelectronics and Watchmaking Industries Ltd.) in 1984, Hamilton is now a subsidiary of Swatch. Following the success of the film Men in Black (1990) Hamilton re-launched the Ventura design with a quartz movement. Since then Hamilton has gone on to produce very high quality watches for the luxury market. Hamilton currently sponsors Nicolas Ivanoff (Aerobatic pilot) and his plane the Hamilton branded Edge 540, they host the Hollywood “behind the Camera Awards, and are the official timekeepers of EAA AirVenture and sponsor the annual event at Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The English Waltham Watches

by Morgan Denyer (Penrose Antiques Ltd)

Here is a bit of a horological heresey, the English Waltham! The Waltham watch company was steeped in American History, the company was founded by David Davies, Edward Howard and Aaron Lufkin Dennison who  in 1850 set up a company in Roxbury Massachusetts to manufacture watch parts. The company was reputedly set up under a cloud of secrecy because David Davies, Edward Howard and Aaron Lufkin Dennison were going to do something quite inventive, set up a watch manufacturing company in which all the components were made in their watch factory subject to strict quality control. This was quite unheard of and pretty much a world first. The watches they produced represented  a revolution in watch making, they could mass produce watches with interchangeable parts.

The first watches were made in 1852, and the company was named the Boston Watch Company in 1853. However the cost of production and retooling took its toll and the company was declared bankrupt resulting in the sale of the factory and larger machines to Royal E Robinns in 1857. He renamed the company Appleton Tracy & Company (ATCo) and retained Aaron Dennison as the factory superintendent. That year the company completed the development of the Model 1857 movement. By 1861 and the start of the American Civil War, ATCo had started to manufacture the William Ellery Model 57 watch. These watches were cheaply mass produced and became popular with Union soldiers who could buy them from roving merchants for a mere $13 or so. It seems that by the end of the civil war in 1865, the William Every Model 57 (Figure 1) accounted for 44.6% of the Waltham sales with the American Civil War Ellery watch serial number reaching around 161,000. (see  “Origins of the Waltham Model 57”   and “A closer look at a Civil War watch “ ).

Figure 1 Blog2Heated debate about the Ellery 57 Model watch represented a turning point in the career of Aaron Dennison. He fell out with Robinns in 1861 and Robinns eventually dismissed him for being a “vocal Dissenter” in 1862. One can imagine that this was a bit of a blow, but the success of the Ellery 57 and the perceived vindication of Dennison’s views seemed to drive him on to his next commercial venture.  In 1864 Dennison took the opportunity to set up the Tremont Watch Company with A. O. Bigelow. The idea here was to assemble watches in the US from fine parts sourced in Switzerland and larger parts sourced in America. Seemed like a good plan, but whilst Dennison was away in Switzerland organising the transport of components, his partners decided to move the company to Melrose and manufacture complete watches there. Needless to say Dennison was not pleased, he left the new company predicting utter disaster and moved to Birmingham England in 1871 where he established a watch case making business in 1872. His timing was perfect because of the opening in 1874 of the London office of the American Watch Company by N.P. Stratton, (assistant superintendant to Dennison in 1857, see “Watches Factories of America; Past and Present” by Henry G Abbott). Here was a ready market for Dennison’s cases and the person he had to convince of the value of his watch cases was none other than his old assistant superintendent at the American Watch Company. Unsurprisingly the majority of  the output of Dennison’s new watch case manufacturing business ended up being used by the London branch of the American Watch Company. What was particularly interesting about this though was that these early Dennison cases did not carry the Dennison makers mark, but AWCo, presumably because Robbins wouldn’t tolerate a Dennison makers mark on his watches.

Fig 2 Blog 2The association between the Dennison Watch Case Company and AWCo and the Later Waltham Watch Company, was maintained long after Aaron Dennison’s death in 1895. The success of this collaborative venture was exemplified by the Waltham Traveler (Figure 2). The Waltham Traveler consisted of a 7 jewel movement and was favoured for the export market in the early 20th century. Tens of thousands were sent to the UK where they were mostly cased in Dennison gold or gold plated cases. These watches were robust and many have survived in good working order. They represent a very good investment for those wishing to buy a good antique watch. The real benefit of these watches is that because they were mass produced, the parts are readily sourced and are fully interchangeable.

By the First World War Waltham had become a major supplier of watch movements in the UK, but the market was changing. Pocket watches were of little use in the trenches of the European battle fields and troops had started to modify their watches by the addition of wire lugs. Dennison, having his business located in the UK was in a prime position to take advantage of this. By 1914/15 Dennison had started to make transitional or trench watch cases consisting of what looked like pocket watch cases fitted with wire lugs (Figure 3). These were designed to fit Waltham movements and were a favorite with British officers heading of to war. The design actually gained such popularity with the conservative British that the Dennison transitional watch cases were made right through the 1920s and into the mid to late1930s. The latest example we at Penrose Antiques Ltd have encountered dated from 1938.Fig 3a

Post WW1 there were also drivers to further refine wristwatch design. This was very much a period of the tank watch, a design first created by Louis Cartier in 1917. Virtually all watchmakers leaped on the tank watch bandwagon, and Waltham, was no different. By the 1920s Waltham was producing a range of movements designed to fit slim rectangular dress watchcases. Many of these movements made it to the UK to be encased in lovely simple but elegant slim lozenge shaped curved art Art Deco Dennison cases.

In the history of watch making, many watch manufacturers had watch movements made to fit their watch cases, for example the American Ball Watch Company used Swiss made Avia watch movement. Thus one could argue that the Walthams assembled in the UK form English made Dennison cases represent a special bread of English Walthams. After all many of the Dennison cases, although designed to fit Waltham movements were also designed for the English market. For example the early trench watch cases made by Dennison specifically met the needs of the British heading off to the trenches. The design was only later adopted by Waltham in the US to meet the needs of American troops post April 6th 1917 when the USA entered the war. So perhaps Britain, via the efforts and perseverance of Aaron Dennison can bathe in a small portion of the glory of the historically great American Waltham Watch Company.

The association with Dennison and the English market may also have played a part in the eventual downfall of the Waltham Watch Company. The British were by nature very conservative, but the UK was a major market for Waltham. Perhaps to meet the needs of this market, Waltham maintained a more conservative output, and it may have been that the English conservative influence led  Waltham watches to be perceived as a bit boring in the home US market. This perception of conservatism was believed to have played a part in a decline of sales and the eventual bankruptcy of the Waltham Watch Company  in 1949 and closure of the American Waltham Watch factory in 1957.

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