‘The Story of a Watch,’ Illinois Watch Co. silent movie, 1922

Hundreds of Illinois Watch Co. employees leave the plant after work sometime in April 1922. (Except as noted, illustrations are screen captures from ‘The Story of a Watch’.)

Springfield’s Illinois Watch Co. stars in “The Story of a Watch,” a remarkable silent film made in 1922.

The Rothacker Film Production Co. of Chicago, which specialized in non-theatrical industrial and advertising films, produced the 52-minute movie. It shows how a 23-jewel Bunn Special railroad watch, one of Illinois Watch’s premier products, was put together from beginning to end.

A title card explains why, and how often, an Illinois Watch would tick.

Most of the first 40 minutes of the film involves technical watch production, explained with title cards, which were often used in silent movies to explain complicated concepts. Despite Illinois Watch’s intensive use of machinery, making a Bunn Special also required a surprising amount (to 21st-century eyes) of human interaction and adjustment.

Illinois State Journal feature writer Nellie Browne Duff explained in a 1925 profile of the company.

Few people realize the amount of work, of time, labor and infinite detail, involved in the making of a watch. If they did, they would marvel that the price of a watch is as low as it is.

… While (parts) are made by the most accurate especially built machines, it still is impossible for every part to be made absolutely identical in size. Therefore each part in every watch is fitted to its corresponding part in the most delicate and accurate manner by hand. In this operation each part is gauged and another measuring exactly the same is fitted and adjusted to it by hand.

The film also emphasizes the sheer number of pieces, many of them tiny, that went into an accurate timepiece. At various points, Rothacker focuses on the number of minuscule rubies – rubies and sapphires were used as pivot bearings – that fit onto a teaspoon (36,500); the number of jewel screws in a bottle the size of a spice container (341,624 exactly); and the number of pallet staffs you could hold in a sewing thimble (5,625).

Long tables of women at work in the jeweling department. Women were thought to have a more delicate touch with the tiny jewels.

Production of a single Bunn Special took six months and involved 194 parts and more than 3,500 separate operations, according to the film. And that was not counting the watch case – Illinois Watch manufactured watch movements and faces, but the company bought cases elsewhere.

When finished, each Special went into both hot and cold storage and was tested in six different positions – upside-down, on its back, etc. – to be sure it kept accurate time no matter how and under what conditions it was used.

Bunn Specials, which came in 21- and 23-jewel versions, were expensive timepieces. A local jeweler listed Bunn Specials at $60 in 1925. However, a 1923 classified ad to sell a used 23-jewel open-face Special, with a solid gold case, claimed an estimated value of $130; the seller was asking $65. (The U.S. average wage at the time was around $1,300 a year.)

A 23-jewel Bunn Special for sale on ebay, asking price $895, in 2023 (ebay)

At about the 42nd minute, “The Story of a Watch” moves from watch production to other aspects of Illinois Watch’s plant and its employees, such as its observatory and Illinois Watch’s pioneering time-and-weather wireless station; the cafeteria and company hospital (services provided free to employees who were injured or suddenly taken sick); and the Illinois Watch Co. band and baseball team.

Duff added that women made up about half of Illinois Watch’s 1,200-plus employees; they were overseen by a matron “so that mothers of girls may feel perfectly at ease about their daughters working for this company.” Other employee benefits, Duff wrote, included a YWCA club, a circulating library, “a piano and victrola for recreation during the noon hours,” and group life insurance.

One striking scene at the 46-minute mark in “The Story of a Watch” shows employees – women first – pouring out of Illinois Watch’s main entrance on Ninth Street (this sentence has been corrected). The company occupied 14 acres between Ninth and 11th streets north of North Grand Avenue. Sangamo Electric, which at first shared part of the plant, took over the entire facility after Illinois Watch closed in Springfield in 1932.

“The Story of a Watch” doesn’t identify any of the hundreds of people shown in the movie. However, a Rothacker filmmaker was on hand when the Chicago & Alton Limited pulled into Springfield’s Third and Jefferson streets train station on April 14, 1922. The next day, the Illinois State Journal reported that he filmed a C&A engineer, Charles Davis, who had carried a Bunn Special for 18 years. The start of “The Story of a Watch” shows an engineer, presumably Davis, proudly displaying his watch.

Unidentified man, probably observatory director George F. Johnson, adjusts the Illinois Watch telescope. The telescope was used for “general astronomic observations,” not to help determine the time. The public sometimes was invited into the observatory for special sky events.

In addition, the observatory section of the film shows a white-haired man in a hat adjusting the telescope. That almost surely was George F. Johnson (1851-1931), who became director of the Illinois Watch observatory after retiring as the company’s general manager.

“The Story of a Watch,” filmed under the aegis of the U.S. Interior Department, was part of a series of movies made to showcase American industry in foreign markets, Illinois State Journal columnist A.L. Bowen wrote in March 1922.

“Motion pictures are the means depended upon to circulate American industries about the world,” Bowen said. SangamonLink was unable to identify any other businesses that were the subject of similar films.

Filming was done over a few days in April 1922. “The Story of a Watch” got its debut showing at a meeting of the Springfield Engineers Club that June. Whether it was ever screened to audiences around the world, as Bowen predicted it would be, is unknown.

The foreword to “The Story of a Watch” also takes note of the importance of watches to the “great and intricate machinery” of life in 1922.

“If the millions of timekeepers in the pockets of busy men and women were suddenly and permanently to stop,” the title card says, “a demoralization would result that could not be obtained from the removal of any other device of modern civilization – disorder and chaos would reign.”

More information: See SangamonLink’s entry, Illinois Watch Co., for a general history of the firm. As of spring 2023, the Rails West website also had an excellent recounting of Illinois Watch history.

To view: As of spring 2023, the full 52-minute version of “The Story of a Watch” could be viewed on YouTube via the link in the first sentence of this entry. (The video may start several minutes into the film, but you can click on the video and move backwards or forwards as desired.)

Hat tip: To Roger Whitaker, who brought “The Story of a Watch” to SangamonLink’s attention.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 



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