Wednesday, July 3, 2013

My Name Is Steven, And I'm Addicted To Railroad Watches

Okay, maybe "addicted" isn't the right term, if the "addict" in question doesn't actually buy any of the stuff he's "addicted" to. At this point it's still just a mental thing with me, but if my finances were to substantially improve, railroad watches are at the top of the frivolous purchases to be added to my life. Well, the watches and the maintenance of them. I don't think I'd want to stop at one railroad watch. We're talking $100 to several grand a pop, and then an annual cleaning, adjustment and, if necessary, repair, which could easily cost more than the initial purchase price of the watch in question. Not happening right now.

Hey Steve, you may be asking -- what the heck is a railroad watch? Strictly speaking, railroad watches were the timepieces carried by railroad conductors during the era when mechanical watches, that is, watches wound by hand, were the most reliable timekeeping devices available to those conductors, which complied to the regulations of the railroad. The regulation varied from one railroad to another. And you know what, for all I know, even after battery powered watches began to replace wind-up models, in the 1970's maybe? and began to far outshine then in terms of accuracy, those battery-powered watches might still have been referred to as railroad watches. And today the handheld devices used by conductors which are synchronized to the Internet might be called railroad watches.

What I'm getting as it that the definitions vary. I'm going to tell you what I mean by "railroad watch." Not everyone would agree with my definition -- and that's fine with me -- but some people would. What I have in mind is an open-faced pocket watch -- "open faced" means that there's no cover which snaps shut. You don't have to open anything to read the time -- made in the late 19th or early 20th century, made to exacting standards, very accurate and very durable compared to other timepieces of the period, but generally without precious metals (except perhaps for a gold-plated case) or encrustations of showy jewels (although the jewels inside, in the movement of the watch, away from view, are of course crucial), because after all it was conductors who were buying these watches, or railroads buying them for their conductors, and not aristocrats or robber barons. A size-18 pocket watch (that's rather large), with a 17- or 19- or 21- or 23-jewel movement, adjusted 5 ways: face up, face down, stem up, stem down, face and stem both sideways. With a double roller. And lever-set. (Instead of pulling out the stem that winds the watch in order to set the time, you unscrew the crystal covering the face and pull out a lever at 2 o'clock. This changes the stem from the wind function to the set-time function. That's lever-set, and it's great: there's no way to accidentally re-set the time. The stem won't accidentally catch on something and go from wind to set. You can't pull out the set lever when the crystal is in place, and you can't accidentally unscrew the crystal.) With black Arabic numerals on a white face, the idea here being, just as with the lack of a snap-shut case, that the time could be read easily and quickly. Just describing such watches is making my brain roll around on its back and purr.

Some contemporary mechanical watches have windows which let you look inside and see the gears as they run, which is pretty cool in its own way and sometimes part of a very handsome overall look, and it may be that the movement which is always thus on display is also actually extremely accurate -- the best contemporary mechanical watches beat the best from a century ago in accuracy, hands down -- but with a see-through watch, depending on the light and the sparklyness of the face and other factors, you might have to look at it for a while and hold it this way and that before you can actually read the time.

Actually reading the time with ease is not always the point with watches these days, not even with extremely expensive mechanical watches put together with such loving care and expertise that the difference in accuracy between them and a $20 quartz-battery watch is negligible. Well, I like the functionality of a clean white face and plain black hands and stark black Arabic numerals for the hours, and hopefully also stark red numerals for the minutes out on the edge. No sparkle here. It's not only not the point, it would be counterproductive. I know none of that is necessary these days, I know my cell phone keeps much better time than any of those railroad watches ever will. I know, I know. What's moving me here is not, strictly speaking, functionality, any more than functionality is what moves a person to spend thousands of dollars on a brand-new wind-up watch which is extremely accurate but you can't always read the extremely-accurate time right away. Depending on the light. That's the thing: none of this railroad-watch obsession is rational. The things I love about these watches were practical a century ago, but no more. (EMP, you may be exclaiming, EMP! In the case of an electro-magnstic pulse bomb, the battery and Internet timekeeping devices would be disabled, and the railroad watches wouldn't be! But you know what, I think the EMP would wreck the railroad watches too. You don't want to even put a railroad watch down next to a TV because its magnetic field will damage the watch. I'm afraid that in the case of a EMP bomb the railroad watches would be toast along with the more modern devices. And even if they wouldn't be, that practicality would not be the point.) I don't share the passion of the guy spending a fortune for a new wind-up watch with a see-through window and an extremely sparkly face, and maybe several different pairs of hands keeping the time in several different continents, whatever -- I don't share that passion, but now I definitely UNDERSTAND it. All my life I'd heard about the irrational obsessions of collectors, but until this watch bug bit me recently I'd never experienced it. I used to look down a little on women who had, or wanted to have, many pairs of shoes. But no more. Women's shoes are just as thoroughly boring to me as they ever were, but I think that the fascination with them is similar to my fascination with the railroad watches. With the shoes and with the watches, I think, it has to do with thoughts and emotions which are separate from those which are immediately practical, which operate from some other place in the brain. I'd heard a lot about collectors, but now I potentially am one. All I lack is the cash. Century-old railroad watches, brand-new expensive flashy sparkly hard-to-read watches, shoes, paintings, vintage cars, coins, postage stamps, butterflies or something else, we collectors sneer at those who buy the things just in order to sell them later. Those people are investors or dealers. They don't get it at all. They're operating from practical motives. I'm one of the collectors now, mentally and emotionally if not actually materially. I get it now.

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