The Strike That Struck A Watch


In November of 1940, the Hamilton 992B was introduced and initial shipments commenced. It boasted new design features, a monometallic balance and the new “Elinvar Extra” hairspring, and interchangeability of parts. The design improvements quickly made the 992B the universal standard for the railroad watch industry and was marketed by Hamilton as “America’s finest and most accurate railroad watch.” It would also be the last railroad watch made and certified. While avid horologists seek to collect this treasure of a watch, it is the unique story of Hamilton Watch Company and the Armstrong Cork and Rubber Company, who made the plastic “Cigarette” boxes, that continues to be the real coup de grâce.

There is still little to be known about authenticity of the Hamilton plastic “cigarette” boxes that housed the 992b railroad watch. The initial watches were packaged in a unique ivory plastic “Cigarette” box with blue padded velvet liners. Hamilton’s website describes, “As production continued, additional case offerings were added and eventually, the plastic “Cigarette” box and outer cardboard box was replaced by a less expensive two piece cardboard box.” It is here where the unique story begins to take shape.

In 1947, a nationwide series of post-war labor strikes had begun. Union membership had increased significantly since war’s end and build-up of labor disputes had exploded. Post-war shortages spanned numerous industries and public utilities, and Hamilton Watch was feeling the pressures. These trying times left only bits of evidence to piece together furthering the mystery of the plastic “Cigarette” boxes. It would be learned that Hamilton Watch sent notice to distributors that the Armstrong Cork Company, suppliers of their plastic boxes had been closed by a strike. They went on to say, “It’s not our strike, but it hurts just as badly.” The Armstrong Cork and Rubber Company was down the street from the Hamilton Watch Company plant in Lancaster, PA and is said to have made the boxes for these and several other Hamilton Classics.

caseHorologists had long been speculating about the boxes since they were furnished with most, but not all factory cased 992B timepieces. Hamilton is said to have also fitted the 992B into a small number of substitute cases. Discrepancies such as the label on the flip box seemingly missing on many of the boxes were consistent with letters found having been sent from Hamilton to their wholesalers indicating that proper boxes were going to be made available as soon as possible. Speculative theories of how this may have happened are widely spread. Uncased movements were reported as being exported to Canada in “shipping tins.” Other collectors have noted as many as 14 colors of these boxes, including rare two-tone cases. A quick search of the internet will reveal forums and auction listings with two-toned boxes and “blue” colored boxes side by side, clearly of differing shades. Stories continue to circulate of “mottled” or “variegated” colors as the result of mixing batches near the end of the runs to reduce material waste, consistent with other rationed industry stories.

A unique little story out of an even larger chapter in America’s history book. Even “America’s finest and most accurate railroad watch” was struck by a strike. While the true treasure will always be the 992b railroad watch that came in the case; the tales of the Hamilton plastic “cigarette” boxes that housed the 992b will continue to be a real coup de grâce among horologists everywhere.

Craig Duling

Craig Duling's fascination with timepieces goes back at least to his college days, when he built a digital clock from scratch for his senior year physics lab class. Currently the head of Heritage Management Services, a business management firm in San Francisco, Craig Duling is also a significant collector of rare antique pocket watches. Pocket watches are often associated with images of 19th-century railroad conductors consulting them as steam trains left the station. This close attention to correct time was essential. In the 19th century, most trains traveled in both directions on single sets of tracks. Sidings were placed at regular intervals to allow trains to pass safely. Printed timetables showed the arrival and departure of trains, as well as when they were waiting in sidings. This system depended on accurate watches. The problem with this became evident in 1891 when two trains in Ohio had a head-on collision, killing nine people. Investigation disclosed that the engineer's watch on the passenger train had stopped and restarted, making it four minutes slow. This tragedy prompted railroad officials to set up standards for pocket watches. These specifications mandated that watches share a common design, as well as being reliable, easy to read, and impervious to extremes of temperature.

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