American Watchmaking

American Watchmaking


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Colonial watchmaking activity seems to have been very modest compared to clockmaking of the same period. Although a few colonists brought watchmaking skills, tools, and materials from Europe as early as the late 1600s, it seems that those individuals sold and repaired imported watches rather than making original ones. Advertisements suggest that a small number of watches were being made in America by the mid 1770s, with credit for the first natively produced watch going to Thomas Harland (1735-1807) of Norwich, Connecticut.


Whereas European craft guilds resisted their use of machinery, there was no American guild system to block the rise of a factory-based industry, as evidenced by the burgeoning clock industry of the early 19th century. By the mid 1830s, brothers Henry and James E. Pitkin of East Hartford, Connecticut, were already experimenting with a machine-made watch with interchangeable parts. While they achieved a moderate level of uniformity, their machine-made parts still had to be hand-finished and supplemented with imported parts. Their products could not compete with the less expensive imports, particularly those from Switzerland, which dominated the American market through the 1850s.


Aaron L. Dennison (1812-1895) and Edward Howard (1813-1904) were the first to successfully produce watches by machine. With Howard's support, Dennison began developing the necessary machinery in 1849, and only a few years later was having success with a thirty-six hour watch. Although their firm, the Boston Watch Company, was forced into receivership during the financial recession of 1857, it served as an inspiration and template for many firms that followed.


Subsequent companies had to further work out the unique difficulties of watch manufacture–namely, the production of small interchangeable parts. This took a lot of capital, and some firms were short-lived, exhausting their funds even before they put any watches on the market. Others, such as Waltham (a reorganization of the Boston Watch Company), Howard, Elgin, Hampden, and Illinois, were successful and lasted a long time. By the 1870s, American watch production had grown exponentially, largely displacing Swiss imports.