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Review: Hamilton 992B Pocket Watch

It’s been a few years, but I’ve gone and done it. I’ve bought another watch. But this one … this one’s different. It’s not what you’d expect, and for a multitude of reasons. So, without any further ado, here it is: my new(-ish) watch. Here are three reasons why I love it.

The History

So, when I said watch, I didn’t mean what you thought I did. This is quite obviously a pocket watch. It’s a Hamilton, from around 1950, and it is not for wearing on the wrist. Wristwatches were of course very much a thing in 1950, but not for Chicago Great Western—because this, ladies and gentlemen, is an American railroad watch.

These days the Americans don’t get so much love for their watches, but in its horological heyday, starting in the 1830s, America was the epicentre of the mechanical movement. So much so, that the techniques not just in making the watches, but operating the facilities they were made in, were the envy of the world. So valuable was that information that IWC founder F.A. Jones took it to Switzerland, taught the Swiss how to mass produce high-quality watches with it, and the rest is history.

The Americans were very motivated to build precise pocket watches, and a lot of them, because of one simple thing: America is big. Because America is big, America needed trains to move people and cargo around, and when those railroads started getting crowded, timing became very important. Fatally important.

Hamilton was founded in 1892, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

Hamilton was founded in 1892, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

But timing the “iron horse” was no easy task. Time was set by the position of the sun, and so every town effectively had its own time zone. The railroad companies agreed on a new system of four zones: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. Even so, a watch running four minutes late cost the lives of nine when the number 14 train collided with the Toledo Express.

So, in 1893, under the watchful eye of Chief Time Inspector Webster Clay Ball, railroad watches became standardised. Regular time inspections were carried out. A watch, to be suited to the railroad, had to contain a minimum of 17 jewels, be adjusted to a minimum of five positions, operate from below freezing to a scorching 100 degrees—and be accurate to within thirty seconds per week. The watchmakers who met these gruelling demands were Ball, Elgin, Waltham—and of course, Hamilton.

The Movement

The challenge of building a movement that accurate in that quantity was one Hamilton seemed quite ready to take on board. Founded in 1892, with roots tracing back further still to 1874, and boasting a fully-fledged factory staffing some 750 employees by the turn of the century, it was the complete antithesis of the quiet Swiss watchmaker working alone in his workshop. With production running into the millions of units, it’s not hard to see why.

Demand for railroad watches, not just by the railroad, but by the public too, saw scales of production never before seen in watchmaking. Such volume warranted standardised parts, procedures and assembly to become what was known as the American system of watchmaking, the precious industrial secret that would change the fortunes of Switzerland entirely.

But for America at the time, and in this case Hamilton, it resulted in movements like this, the 992B. The final iteration of Hamilton’s railroad calibre, over half a million made between 1940 and 1969, many worked hard on the railroad. They would be inspected every six months or whenever accuracy slipped, the inspector marking the inside of the case back when a repair was made.

Hamilton is now based in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland

Hamilton is now based in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland

Setting the 992B is an unusual process. With 52 hours of wind and the best performance found in the first half, Hamilton decided to separate the time-setting function from the winding to prevent accidental adjustment and a repeat of the Toledo Express disaster. Under the crystal, a little lever is pulled out, and only then can the watch’s time be set.

But by far the most appealing thing about the calibre 992B is the way it looks. A watch built for hard graft would be expected to have a utilitarian finish, but here we see anything but. Striping on the bridges, polishing on the bevels, gold chatons, a turned crown wheel and ratchet—and even rounded spokes on the centre, third and fourth wheels. And that’s not even the best bit…

The Price

As this is my own watch, it seems crude to talk about money—but nevertheless, it would be remiss of me to avoid it. And I can feel confident in sharing the price paid for this timepiece because, well, it’s not a huge sum of money, not for a watch, anyway. I mean, when you look at what you’re getting and you consider the price paid, it’s almost rude not to pay it …

Look at the calibre 992B and tell me you wouldn’t buy it if you didn’t have the opportunity. Alright, alright, honesty time. Truth be told I didn’t actually intend to buy it. I’ve been looking at it for a while—months, actually—and my wife was so annoyed by my moping that she told me to just buy the thing. So, I compromised, putting in a cheeky offer, thinking nothing would come of it and I’d be able to put the whole matter to bed … and it was accepted.

I hadn’t considered this, so I was now the unexpected owner of a pocket watch I’d never wear. In my months of wallowing in a miserable purgatory somewhere between not buying and buying this watch, I hadn’t stopped to consider what I’d actually do with the thing. Well, now I can tell you what I do do with it: it’s on my desk with my computer, where I wind it every morning, look at the 992B for a bit, and then leave it to tick loudly during Zoom calls.

Hamilton is owned by The Swatch Group

Hamilton is owned by The Swatch Group

But the price! Oh yes. The price. I’ve asked a few people what they thought I paid for it, and some clearly think I earn too much and others too little—however no one got anywhere near close. I’ll tell you what I paid for it, for this piece of history, this beautifully decorated calibre: I paid £250.

Not what you expected, I’ll wager, in more ways than one, and perhaps not what I expected either. But I love it. It’s a testament to what’s achievable both in watchmaking and also collecting. Even though I’ll never wear it and it’ll probably never leave the house, I look forward to winding it and enjoying it every day. For £250, I can’t say fairer than that.

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