• TIMEXPO Giant Mickey Mouse watch

The Story of Clock Making in Waterbury & the Timex Corporation

photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

The history, design and technological development of timepieces in this country can be traced at Timexpo: The Timex Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut. The museum has a range of 1300 timepieces from the mid 1800s to present day that include grandfather clocks, pocket watches, calendar clocks, case clocks, wrist- watches, and even data watches worn by astronaut Dr. Daniel Barry on the space shuttle Endeavour.

“This is a corporate museum. We opened in 2001. The reason it’s in Waterbury is because Timex Watches started here as Waterbury Clock Company. The owners, who are the same family that bought Waterbury Clock during the 1940s, wanted to give the community back a little of its history as a gift,” says Cathy Conti, Director of Timexpo.

The genesis of American clock started in Connecticut and grew exponentially as wooden movements were replaced by brass. Wooden clocks were prone to humidity and did not keep time accurately. They also cost more to manufacture and took longer to make, due to their large size. This small substitution revolutionized the industry, enabling clocks to be mass-produced faster and inexpensively, retailing for less.

Chauncey Jerome was a well-established clock maker of the day who had built the Jerome Manufacturing Company in Bristol, after birthing this idea. His was the largest clock company in the United States. He bought his brass from Waterbury brass manufacturers, Aaron Benedict, who was also a Connecticut State Senator, and Gordon W. Burnham, one of the country’s richest men. Benedict & Burnham also owned the America Pin Company and the Waterbury Button Company, which is still in operation. In 1850 the pair partnered with Jerome, but ultimately they disbanded. By that time, however, Benedict & Burnham had learned all they needed to know about clock manufacturing. In 1954 they established the Waterbury Clock Company (WCC).

They recruited Jerome’s brother, Noel as a manager and administrator. But after Jerome went bankrupt when swindled in a stock deal by P.T. Barnum, he was forced to take a job at WCC as a designer. Over the next ten years he designed ornate and baroque style case clocks crafted from rosewood, bronze, and cast iron, along with 94 varieties of wood case models, often decorated with mythological or religious figures. There is a room at the museum dedicated to all the different styles of clocks, ranging in age from the late 1800s through the 1930s.

“The Waterbury Clock Company took European designs and replicated them here and sold the clocks at an affordable price so everyone could have one in their home,” says Conti. “Originally, clocks were only seen on the town green. They had no face, hands, or numbers, but everyone knew what time it was because of the chime.”

The WCC produced tens of thousands of clocks annually and could no longer rely on the traditional horse and cart method of distribution via a Yankee peddler. In 1867 they added a New York “store” which was really a wholesale depot where “middlemen” brought the watches to be sold to retailers. It was so successful that WCC set up depots in San Francisco and Chicago and in London, England and Glasgow, Scotland.

In 1875 the WCC hired Scottish immigrant Archibald Bannatyne as a master mechanic. He spent the next 30 years designing smaller, better, and quicker clocks; but his claim to fame was a large pocket watch with a tiny, efficient movement inside. It was dubbed “Jumbo” after P.T. Barnum’s elephant and caught the attention of salesman, Robert H. Ingersoll. WCC became Ingersoll’s main supplier of his “dollar” watch, “Yankee”, the first small, mass-produced pocket watch, of which Mark Twain bought two.

“When we have school groups come through, we talk about Waterbury Clock’s assembly line because of its efficiency. Henry Ford came to visit, and he watched how our assembly line worked, then went back to his manufacturing plant and incorporated the concept,” says Conti.

As business grew, WCC opened the Waterbury Watch Company (WWC) in 1880 and also made pocket watches under their own brand. Theirs had a nine-foot long coil that required 158 stem wound half turns every 30 hours for it to keep time. Although, they made over two million watches that sold for $4 a piece, the price was too low, the winds too many, and the middlemen too numerous to remain financially solvent. In 1898, they restructured as the New England Watch Company but still could not remain afloat, while Waterbury Clock in contrast, built five new factories between 1898-1906 to keep up with Ingersoll’s “Yankee” orders.

The innovation of the wristwatch once again revolutionized time keeping and also influenced fashion. It had been used in the military since it was first invented in the early 20th century as a way to coordinate the actions of army units on the battlefield. Hunters and explorers found its use more practical than reaching inside a jacket to pull out a pocket watch, and women wore it like a piece of jewelry. Some of the watches had luminous hands so they could be seen at night.

“Waterbury Clock took the “Midget,” which was the women’s pocket watch and changed its design. We went from the stem being at the 12 o’clock mark to the 3 o’clock mark and inserted it into a band,” Conti explains.

After World War I pocket watches became obsolete; and the Swiss led the way in wristwatches, both from a fashion and technological standpoint, having designed smaller tooling to obtain greater precision. Ingersoll’s watches ceased selling, and he went bankrupt. WCC seized this opportunity to offer its own line of watches similar to Ingersoll’s “Yankee”, “Midget,” and others. They also hired Ingersoll’s most skilled sales and advertising men who were now unemployed.

When the Great Depression hit, WCC was unable to fulfill its orders and was falling fast. As a last ditch effort to save their ailing company, they paid Walt Disney a $1500. licensing fee to reproduce Mickey Mouse on their pocket and wristwatches and alarm clocks. It was a huge success.

“In 1933 Mickey Mouse watches were introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair. The work force grew from 300 to 3000,” Conti says.

On display at the museum are these watches along with others they made later bearing the likenesses of Zorro, Hopalong Cassidy, Wonder Woman, Dick Tracy, 101 Dalmatians, Winnie the Pooh, Superman, Bambi, Snow White, Batman, Superman, Alice in Wonderland, and others.

Just before World War II, WCC introduced jeweled wristwatches for men and women at a low price. They became a wardrobe staple, and it was not uncommon to have several for different occasions. During the war, the factory was used to make timing devices for bombs. At the museum there is whole room filled with wartime memorabilia designed by, and dedicated to, Waterbury’s veterans and citizens.

In 1941, two Norwegians, Joakim Lehmkuhl and Thomas Olsen, who came to America when the Germans invaded Norway, purchased the company which had slowly become too expensive to operate.   

“They wanted to buy a manufacturing company that was helping with the war effort,” says Conti.

The company’s name was changed to the United States Time Corporation, and in 1945 the word “Timex” appeared on its first watch.

The Olsen family also helped sponsor fellow Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage in “Kon-Tiki,” a hand built raft. Heyerdahl was an adventurer who made four ocean going expeditions starting in 1947. He sailed “Kon-Tiki” from Peru to Polynesia following the same route primitive cultures did “to demonstrate his theories that ancient civilizations may have spread from a common source through sea voyages.” He filmed the entire trip and was the first Norwegian to win an Academy Award for his documentary. The Timexpo Museum has an exhibit honoring his achievements and showcasing his voyages.

The 1950s and 1960s saw a series of clever ads like Mickey Mantle hitting fifty homes runs with a Timex strapped to his bat. The slogan “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” was coined during this time, and television newscaster John Cameron Swayze produced a series of torture test commercials to prove it. He placed the watch in dishwashers, on outboard propellers and on the wrists of high divers and water skiers. There were also print advertisements telling women they needed more than one watch in their wardrobes for sport (waterproof), daytime (classic), and evening (diamonds). Salesmen challenged stores owners over lunch to put their Swiss watches in their water glasses to see if they would keep ticking like the Timex watches they had submerged. Soon, one out of every two watches purchased in the U.S. was a Timex, and in 1969 the company changed its name to Timex Corporation.

With advances in technology came the LED and LCD watches, the electro luminescence “Indiglo,” GPS enabled watches, heart rate monitor exercise watches, luxury, sports, business and kids watches, and more. Now called

Timex Group USA, Inc., the company is still owned by the Olsen family and continues to offer an innovative, durable, and reliable product at an affordable price.

That’s quite a legacy, and the Timexpo Museum documents it well.

For more information on museum location and hours log onto www.timexpo.com.

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