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His Time Saved Lives

Sometimes a man takes the initiative and makes history. At other times, other people thrust a responsibility on someone and he makes history by fulfilling that responsibility and doing it well. The subject of today’s blog was of the latter sort.

The catalyst for Webb’s claim to fame was a tragedy. But Webb learned from that tragedy and acted upon what he learned, and his actions led to the saving of untold lives. Webb was just a small businessman, a jeweler, who was called upon to do a job. But he took that assignment seriously, and, because he did, people escaped tragedies similar to the one that resulted in his getting the assignment in the first place.

On April 19, 1891, in Kipton, Ohio, a train wreck occurred in which eight people were killed. Investigators pieced together the chain of events and searched for the cause.

Two trains, one a fast mail train and the other an accommodation train (a local that stops at nearly every station along a line and therefore moves slowly), were approaching each other on the same track. The accommodation train was ordered to run onto a siding at Kipton to let the fast mail go through on the mainline. Earlier, the engineer of the accommodation train had dropped his watch in a puddle, and, unknown to him, it had stopped for four minutes. But while he was washing it off, it had restarted, but it had lost four minutes. When the engineer received the order to go onto a siding, he had looked at his watch, which indicated that he had seven minutes to get his train onto the siding. In reality, he had only three minutes. The last few cars of the accommodation were still on the mainline when the fast mail, which was right on time, slammed into them at full speed. Both engineers and the people in the mail car were killed.

Investigators and the Superintendent of the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan Railway sought out Webb and asked him to find a way to avoid future such accidents. But why would a railroad approach a jeweler to solve a railroad problem?

Webb, who had grown up on a farm, had earned a reputation as a hard worker and a reliable watch man during an apprenticeship with a local jeweler and as business manager for the Deuber Watch Manufacturing Company. Then he had opened his own small retail jewelry and watch shop, and it grew into a modestly successful business. That’s when the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan contacted him following the Kipton tragedy.

For the next four months after that, he investigated the details surrounding the Kipton train wreck. He learned that it was common for engineers’ and conductors’ watches to disagree. Station clocks often showed yet a different time. Webb’s solution was to standardize the timepieces of everyone working for the railroad–from the engineer to the conductors to the station masters and yard workers. Every person’s watch and every station clock must read the same identical time at all times.

Webb established a list of minimum requirements for every timepiece and recommended that every timepiece be approved and inspected regularly. The “official” time was to be determined by the U.S. Naval Observatory, which sent out the correct time every 24 hours. All timepieces used by the railroad were to be accurate, guaranteed not to lose or gain more than 30 seconds over a two-week period. Unreliable timepieces were either to be repaired to meet the standards or replaced by timepieces that did.

The railroad liked Webb’s ideas and mandated that they be followed. And they named Webb C. Ball to be the Chief Time Inspector for the railroad. So successful was Ball’s time requirement that other railroads began adopting his standard too. It became known as railroad standard time. The job was so demanding, however, that Ball subcontracted the job to local jewelers throughout the railroads’ service areas. He also contracted with various watch makers–including Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham–to manufacture the necessary works that would meet his exacting standards. He then set those works into his own cases, which were marked with his company’s name: Ball Watch Company.

The new standard led to the widespread use of the phrase “Get on the Ball!” If anyone wanted to know the exact time, he asked for “railroad time.” Now users of the railroads could depend on the printed timetables to be accurate and realistic. But most importantly, safety on railroads improved dramatically.

There’s no way of knowing how many accidents the accuracy of Ball’s watches prevented or how many lives were saved because the railroads were using standard railroad time. But it all was possible because one man was conscientious about his work, demanding high standards of himself, his workers, and the companies who contracted to do work for him. The work ethic of this exemplar holds important lessons for us all, especially the youth of our nation.

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

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