The connection between watches and the military, the dangers of commercial espionage and the influence of firearms manufacturing on the watch industry.
by Aaron Stark
In December 2022 I published Disrupting Time: Industrial combat, espionage, and the downfall of a great American company. I got started on this mission of exploration after inheriting a pocket watch from my great grandfather and wanting to learn more about it and the Waltham Watch Co.
1903 Waltham Watch, which I inherited from my great grandfather - author’s photo
On the surface it tells the never-told story of two Swiss spies who came to America in 1876 and stole the secrets of the American watch industry, used it to transform the Swiss to mechanized watch production, and how the recovering Swiss watch industry overwhelmed their main target – the Waltham Watch Co of Waltham, Massachusetts. However, the story runs much deeper, touching on the dangers of insider threats and espionage to corporations, the role of timekeeping in the development of modern society, and the impacts of strategic choices made by companies and entire industries that impact their survival or failure. Accordingly, the book has found a wide and diverse audience including historians, business professionals, intelligence professionals, watch enthusiasts, and those who follow the impact of industrial espionage in current events.
Despite the many themes explored in the book, three stand out most saliently to me. These are covered in the book, but the nice thing about writing articles like this is that there are so many more anecdotes that you come across in researching for which there is not room in the book. You can also check out my website to see additional photos and read some of the historical sources I mention.
Waltham Watch dial from an Ellery watch – author’s photo
The dangers of industrial espionage
One must only read the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times for a week or two before they will see some reference to industrial espionage and its impact, typically related to technology related companies. The concept of stealing technology is well known in history. Some of the most famous targets of industrial espionage were porcelain, silk, and textile manufacturing. The Lowell Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts resulted from Francis Cabot Lowell stealing trade secrets from the English. However, the term industrial espionage is relatively new – it began appearing in historical documents in the early twentieth century and became a mainstream term in the second half of the twentieth century.
In many respects, our view of it has been shaped by the passage of the 1996 Industrial Espionage Act, though many laws touched on the concept, dating back to the 1700s in England. Regardless of the technical legal definitions, there is no doubt that industrial espionage plays a role in economic development and the success of companies. A 2016 economic study found significant evidence of the effects of industrial espionage between East and West Germany. The authors concluded that East Germany would not have been able to maintain its economic near-parity with West Germany had it not been so successful in stealing trade secrets. Thus, the authors conclude: “Our results provide evidence of significant economic returns to industrial espionage.”
Disrupting Time tells one of the most well-documented and illuminated stories of industrial espionage from pre-World War I. While a new story to most – Disrupting Time was the first published research to tell the story –the spies documented their work in copious detail. Jacques David was the main spy, accompanied by his partner Theo Gribi, a watchmaker. David was an engineer and watchmaker who had a strong understanding of emerging mechanized industries. These two men were dispatched by the Society of Jura Industries (SIIJ), a trade association representing the businesses and industries of western Switzerland. They were in America for approximately three months, using this time to sneak into America’s technology leader – the Waltham Watch Co, and also recruiting company insiders and acquiring company documents.
Gribi – left, from “Horology,” June 1937
During their time in America, they wrote letters back to Switzerland giving insight into the mind and method of 19th century industrial spies. They concluded their mission by writing a 130-page report. Their report would remain secret until 1992 but became more widely known when it was translated to English in 2003. From David and Gribi’s 130-page report, it was obvious they had abnormal access to detailed financial information about Waltham, but I couldn’t figure out how, and skeptics kept telling me that maybe Waltham naively shared this information with the Swiss.
The story of their work as spies did not come together until the report could be combined with a key letter they wrote. In David’s letter back to Switzerland from September 1876, he wrote “I sped through [the Waltham factory] quickly and incognito and saw the poor arrangements that I already knew about.” He also wrote about an inside source he recruited: “we tried to work out [Waltham’s] outgoings without reaching a precise result. Mr W, the former director on the mechanical side who is helping us in this respect…” (see page 113 of Disrupting Time). This letter connected many dots that were missing between David’s report just being an interesting document, to identifying it as a product of espionage. Mr W referred to Ambrose Webster, Waltham’s former assistant superintendent and one of the early Waltham godfathers who invented much of the company’s automated production.
Ambrose Webster - The Keystone, December 1892, public domain
Knowing of the Webster connection led to a second historical mystery to explore – Webster’s financial gain. When David published his report in 1877, he recommended Webster as the best maker of tools for watchmaking and suggested the Swiss purchase from him. Accordingly, Webster, who retired from Waltham in the summer of 1876, quickly invested heavily in a venture that would produce watchmaking equipment. It is no surprise that during the fall of 1876, in David’s letter back to the SIIJ, he noted: “I cannot recommend wholeheartedly that W. [Webster] be engaged by a group of manufacturers or by one company, but I still believe this man will be a great help in any reorganization measures that we decide to implement.” While Webster was providing sensitive information to David, David was securing Webster’s long-term involvement in the Swiss transformation through business opportunities.
Webster’s involvement remained a secret until 2022. In many pocket watch and Waltham history circles, Webster is considered one of the founding fathers who is revered, thus his involvement with the Swiss is stunning to many Waltham historians. Waltham would not have existed without Webster, but his defection through a probable quid-pro-quo arrangement with the Swiss resulted in Waltham’s eventual downfall.
Connection of watches and the military
As a veteran of the Army, I especially connected with the heritage of watches and the military, and their resulting impact on society. The Waltham Watch Company gained much of its early fame for its production of the Ellery model, which quickly became known as the Soldier’s Watch during the American Civil War. It cost about two months wages for a private in the Union Army, yet there is much evidence to indicate that soldiers bought them anyway. Their ubiquity in the Army during the Civil War had much to do with an increased emphasis on synchronization during warfare, combined with the fact that there were few clocks in the field. If a soldier wanted to keep track of the time, they needed a watch.
My own timekeeping in combat - an Omega Speedmaster X-33. I could easily relate to the Civil War soldier’s desire to know the time - and spending more than necessary to do it - author’s photo
As I was putting together my book, one anonymous reviewer questioned the idea that soldiers would pay two months salary for a watch – it seemed like too much money for an unnecessary item. When I read that comment, I knew this reviewer had never served in the military! Even now, soldiers spend disproportionate amounts on watches whether they be a nice G-Shock, Rolex, or Breitling. I often attribute this military connection to watches to be much more than a need to know the time; rather it is the one item that a soldier can take with them, it reflects their identity, and it is a valuable tool. These were all attributes expressed by Civil War soldiers as well. Much of the research I came across felt like a multi-century connection between soldiers and their love of watches.
A Massachusetts's 13th Infantry Regiment Soldier from the Civil War, showing off his watch. Provided courtesy of Clint Geller, author of The Appreciation and Authentication of Civil War Time Pieces. (Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress Archives).
The connection of soldiers to their reliable-but-affordable Waltham Watches during the Civil War began a societal transformation. As millions of soldiers left the service, they took their watches and concept of time-consciousness with them. The year for which Disrupting Time is centered – 1876, Americans and the world were experiencing a revolution in timekeeping making the watch industry central to society and the tech industry of its day. By 1880, it was said that people were now expected to be someplace on time, whether that be work or the theater. In 1870, about 1-in-20 American adults owned a watch. By 1900, this per-capita ownership would quadruple to 1-in-5.
Connection of firearms to watches
Springfield Model 1873 Trapdoor Rifle (from Gromitsonabarth, Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0)
In an earlier section, I mentioned Ambrose Webster, an American inventor who became a recruited agent for the Swiss watch industry. Webster actually got his start at the Springfield Armory where firearms were being mass produced by the 1850s. Webster left the armory and joined Waltham shortly after its founding as a chief mechanic. Webster began to reorient the entire factory at Waltham to be more than just a collection of highly-skilled watchmakers operating in the same building. He introduced early automation that allowed Waltham to hire semi-skilled workers who knew little to nothing about watchmaking. He became the principal inventor of many machines, allowing Waltham to quickly scale its production. In 1857, it took Waltham twice as long as the Swiss to produce a watch. Within a few short years, Waltham produced watches in half the time that it took the skilled Swiss watchmakers.
Inside the Waltham Watch Co around the time David and Gribi targeted the company – W.A. Webster, public domain
Webster’s ability to bring the concept of firearms mass production to watches completely revolutionized the watch industry. It was also what alarmed and motivated the Swiss when they saw these novel systems in 1876. Waltham’s systems continued to become more automated as they invested heavily in invention and capital. By 1890, Waltham’s systems would be near-fully automated with handling systems. It was probably around this time that Henry Ford would visit the factory and get the idea for the assembly line for automobiles. Ford’s grandson, Henry Ford II said “I think - I always understood...[Henry Ford] got the idea from the Waltham Watch Company originally by seeing watches going down on an assembly line and he felt that [technique] could be applied to the manufacture of automobiles. There are some other stories prevalent, but that is the one I always heard. So that is the one I believe to be the truth.” (source: “Sidelights of the Day: Show the Boss the Ad,” New York Times, May 9, 1953, 253).
Disrupting Time is a book that weaves together many themes. This era was truly one of revolutionary change in society. As one reviewer noted, the espionage discussed in the book occurred because watches and timekeeping were so central to the economy of that time. If you find any of the topics discussed in this article to be of interest, I encourage you to check out the book, either on Amazon, Audible, or iTunes. It tells the story of cutthroat competition, industrial espionage, societal development, and a great world’s fair. The competition in this era was so intense it was even referred to as “combat of industry” by one contemporary observer. The Swiss watchmakers and Waltham viewed their situation through such a lens, using similar bellicose imagery. David would refer to the American watch companies as “a courageous and well armed adversary.” Meanwhile, Waltham’s chief executive also viewed the situation as a protracted war: “if we can't live in peace we must live on a war-footing…I propose to make the fighting as effective as possible.”
You can find more information about Disrupting Time on Aaron’s website, aaronstarkbooks.com. He enjoys hearing from readers and talking with groups about the book. You can contact him through the website.
Aaron Stark is the author of Disrupting Time: industrial combat, espionage, and the downfall of a great American company. He is a former assistant professor of economics at West Point and a veteran of the US Army.
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