Waltham x Elgin: Corporate Espionage & The History of Pocket Watch Production in the United States

Waltham x Elgin: Corporate Espionage & The History of Pocket Watch Production in the United States

Did you know that the history of the 2 largest American pocket watch manufacturers was tied together? Elgin Watch Company and Waltham Watch Company combined to produce 78% of all pocket watch movements built in America. The two watchmaking giants were also 2 of the first companies to mass-produce watch movements domestically. In studying Elgin to chronicle its history, we came across a fascinating story that we wanted to share. It involves betrayal and bribery (and, of course, watchmaking).

The History of Pocket Watch Production in the United States

In the mid-1800s, the only place in the United States where watches were produced was New England. This region was the hub of U.S. business, in part due to its easy access to the ocean. Who would have thought that Waltham’s biggest competitors would have originated hundreds of miles away in Elgin, Illinois?

One of the first successful manufacturers was the American Watch Company. Since it was based out of Waltham, Massachusetts, the company later changed its name to the American Waltham Watch Company (known colloquially as “Waltham“). Amidst the failed ventures of Boston Watch Company and Nashua Watch Company, Waltham and the Howard Watch Company were the first companies in the world to mass-produce pocket watch movements. Howard Watch Company managed operations on a relatively small scale, so it was soon bypassed by the giant Waltham.

 Waltham was on track to become the United States’ largest watchmaker until fate intervened. Enter Benjamin W. Raymond and John Calhoun Adams. Both of these gentlemen were businessmen in Illinois, relocated from New York. Raymond was an esteemed businessman who was influential in establishing Elgin, Illinois, as a city. He resided in nearby Chicago and served two terms as mayor there. Adams was a watchmaker by trade, owning his own jewelry business and eventually serving as the timekeeper for the Chicago and Galena Union Railroad.

Adams and Raymond knew of Waltham’s success in manufacturing pocket watches with machinery instead of by hand. Both wanted in on it, but this was well before they could simply order the watchmaking machinery. All machines used in the watchmaking process were invented by and/or built by the respective companies. To build a successful watchmaking business, they needed a man on the inside. The answer came in the form of 7 people, later known in Elgin lore as the “Seven Stars.”

Who Were the “Seven Stars?”

Between 1863 and January of 1865, Adams and Raymond took advantage of discontent amongst the Waltham workers by recruiting 7 of its key employees. They were George Hunter, John K. Bigelow, Patten S. Bartlett, Otis Hoyt, Charles E. Mason, Daniel R. Hartwell, and Charles S. Moseley. Their motivation to leave established civilization and journey to the largely unsettled “West?” An immediate $5,000 bonus and an annual salary of $5,000. While that may not seem like much now, it equates to almost $100k with today’s inflation. Plus, the living expenses were but a tiny portion of that money as Elgin excelled at providing low-cost living arrangements for workers.


The “Seven Stars” were instrumental in kicking off Elgin’s successful 100-year run. In addition to their innate knowledge of the watchmaking industry, they helped build the company’s watchmaking machines using some of the same concepts utilized at Waltham’s factory. In addition, the Elgin factory was designed by H.H. Hartwell, the brother of a star, Daniel Hartwell. As he was the man who designed Waltham’s factory, Hartwell was able to improve the design with Elgin.


Did Elgin’s bribery and the “Seven Stars’” betrayal lead to a happy ending? Elgin eventually overtook Waltham as the top American manufacturer of watch movements. The two companies battled each other for years to come, but Elgin took the edge as they focused on manufacturing efficiency and slashed their prices the more efficient they became.

Interestingly, three of the Stars and Elgin frontrunner John C. Adams started a new watch company in 1869. Adams was attempting to replicate Elgin’s success, but their Springfield, Illinois-based company was never anywhere near as successful as Elgin. The story of that watch company, known as Illinois Watch Company, is a story for another day…


PS - If you’re a watchmaker and currently working for a big Swiss company, send us an email. Maybe you could be the next generation of “stars” to help us bring more watch manufacturing to America!


Written by Jordan Roberts, aka "The Watch Writer"

Stuart, D. (n.d.). American watch manufacturers: Production summary. US Watch Companies Production Summary. http://www.pocketwatchrepair.com/histories/us-watch-production.php

Alft, E. C., & Briska, W. H. (2003). Elgin Time: A history of the Elgin National Watch Company 1864-1968. Elgin historical Society.

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