American Watch Company Prototype

American Watch Company Prototype

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The first firm to mass-produce watches by machine was the American Watch Company of Massachusetts. Oliver B. Marsh, one of the firm's earliest watchmakers, designed and made this watch as a prototype.
The appetite for watches in the United States in the early part of the 19th century was huge; about $46 million worth were imported between 1825 and 1858, especially from England Switzerland. To tap into this market, a few Americans attempted to develop watches domestically, but probably no more than two thousand watches were made in the United States before the 1850s.
In that decade, watchmakers at what would become the American Watch Company of Waltham, Massachusetts, developed the world's first machine-made watches. They completely redesigned the watch so that its movement could be assembled from interchangeable parts made on specialized machines they invented just for that purpose. They also developed a highly organized factory-based work system to speed production and cut costs.
The firm was launched in 1849 in a corner of the Howard & Davis clock factory in Roxbury, near Boston, where Edward Howard and Aaron Dennison experimented with completely new designs for watches and the machines to make them. With expert help from a cadre of experienced mechanicians and funding from Howard's father-in-law, the Boston mirror maker Samuel Curtis, the enterprise got under way.
Dennison had absorbed techniques for the mass production of firearms with interchangeable parts during a visit at the Springfield Armory. The primary measures the new firm adopted from arms making were a tight organization, a critically important machine shop, and a manufacturing system that relied on models. Waltham designers made a model watch and a master set of gauges to fit it, and every watch part made thereafter was measured against the corresponding model part.
In its first decade, the firm's work was largely experimental, but by late in 1852, Howard and Dennison finally had products-seventeen watches, made mostly by hand by brothers Oliver and David Marsh. One of these prototypes, a watch made by Oliver Marsh, survives in the collections of the museum.
O. B. Marsh's watch was large compared to other pocket watches of the time. The white- enamel dial indicated minutes around the rim and featured four smaller dials indicating hours (at 6:00) seconds (at 12:00), days of the week (at 9:00) and date (at 3:00).
The design of these first watches, eight-day movements with two mainsprings, gave way to a simpler one, a watch that ran on one mainspring for a little more than a day. Although superficially similar to English watches of the time, the new American watch featured a mainspring in a "going barrel." This meant a watch without the traditional fusee and chain to equalize the force of the unwinding spring. This was a watch with fewer parts to make.
The next hundred Waltham watches, built on the new model, took until the fall of 1853. The third batch of nine hundred sold for just $40 each, cased. An imported movement of the same quality cost twice as much.
Currently not on view
Object Name
pocket watch
date made
Date made
ca 1852
Waltham Watch Company
American Waltham Watch Co.
Oliver B. Marsh
Oliver B. Marsh, for American Watch Co.
Place Made
United States: Massachusetts, Boston, Roxbury
Physical Description
gold, 18 k (case material)
enamel, white (dial material)
overall: 3 1/8 in x 2 5/16 in x 5/8 in; 7.9375 cm x 5.87375 cm x 1.5875 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph W. E. Bourgeois
See more items in
Work and Industry: Mechanisms
Measuring & Mapping
Clothing & Accessories
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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