John Scholvin

John Scholvin

still can’t fit a half-stack in the trunk

12 Feb 2023


vintage pocket watch

Illinois Sangamo 1910

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been floating around in a bit of an anhedonic funk, wasting time watching YouTube videos and generally not doing a damned thing. I live in a land where the TODO list grows monotonically, and entropy gradually takes over my mind, body, and all other things for which I’m responsible. I’m not sad; I’m just lazy. I am continuing to dig into why this is so, and I’m not finding answers yet. It’s OK. I’ve been in this dank cellar before, and I’ve always found the stairs out eventually.

Watching videos about golf hasn’t improved my game, per a session at X-Golf last night. However, watching these videos about mechanical watch repair maybe hasn’t been entirely in vain. I was sitting here watching one the other night when I remembered I have a mechanical pocket watch about a foot from this keyboard. I fished it out of my desk drawer where I had dutifully filed it away with my extra Apple Watch bands.1

The details are a little fuzzy—as are most things, these days—but I believe my cousin, John, found this pocket watch among my grandfather’s things, before the estate sale held after my grandmother passed, just about six years ago. At some point in the following days, he gifted it to me. I put it away, and, to be truthful, pretty much forgot about it until now.

Pulling it out of my drawer last week, and admiring it, I enjoyed its functional beauty, feeling the satisfying heft of it in my hand, and thinking a bit about the history of this watch. It felt old. This artifact is central to how people like my grandfather, Alvin, helped run the railroads on time in the era before network synchronized clocks, and it gave me a chance to remember him, and what a profound influence he was on me and so many others.

Armed with my newfound knowledge from watching Marshall’s videos, I opened up the case and took a look at the movement. It’s pristine, in what appears to be absolutely perfect condition. I wound it up, and it immediately began running. I was hypnotized by the motion of the balance wheel (poorly rendered in the GIF here), and, holding it to my ear, soothed and charmed by the ticking sound.2 How incredible! This little machine, over 100 years old, came right to life just like it was new. Who builds things like this anymore?

vintage pocket watch interior mechanism

the mechanism

I discovered that the setting lever was stuck. So I moved the hands manually to set the time, gave it a full wind, and set it aside for the evening to see if it was keeping decent time. Twelve hours later, it was spot-on, at least within a minute. To truly measure the accuracy of a mechanical watch like this, you need to place it on a timegrapher, which is the sort of expensive tool that only a watchmaker will have.3

Based on the serial number on the movement, I learned it’s a “Sangamo” model made by the Illinois Watch Company in about 1910. It’s a railroad-grade watch, meaning it’s certified for extra accuracy and safety. You have to unscrew the face and use the internal setting lever (rather than the crown, like most watches) to adjust the time, because they wanted to remove the possibility that the conductor or engineer would accidentally change the time while using it. It also has a high contrast dial, and uses Arabic rather than Roman numerals to aid in quick reading, and to reduce the possibility of misreading. This sort of standardized rigor in railroad watchmaking came about after several horrific train accidents in the late 19th century were blamed on the railmen not knowing exactly what time it was, and ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a matter of actual life and death.

* * *

Normally, here, the kicker would be that this karmic moment of my time-wasting habits leading directly to me discovering this century-old family treasure shook me out of my doldrums and set me back on my battle against personal entropy. I’m wasting time, and I found a machine from way back in time, that measures time! This has to be the key to snap out of it! Well, dear reader, that…has not happened. I’m still wading around in whatever this swamp is. But I did have occasion to contemplate the path of this beautiful device through space-time, borne by the hands of my kin, to me, here and now. There’s something there. If I keep poking at it, I may find it.

  1. This is one of my tricks to ward off any further mental decline: keeping like things together around the house. Or maybe it’s a desperate sign of decline already in progress? ↩︎

  2. I tried to record it, but it’s so faint. I dimed the gain on the mic, and the sound of the birds outside were louder than the ticking. ↩︎

  3. In the course of writing this, I found there is an iPhone app to do this, but I felt like dropping $30 on it was a bit extravagant. Especially since I’m probably going to take it in to a pro for servicing anyway. ↩︎