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Elgin National Watch Observatory

Elgin was the only watch company maintaining an observatory that observed, recorded and broadcasted time from the stars correct to the hundredths of a second. Located at Raymond and National streets overlooking the factory, the building still stands today and is used by Elgin High School. The building was used by the watch company to measure time interval, using a phenomenon that occurs in exactly the same interval of time.

At the turn of the century the country demanded accurate timepieces, partly due to the increase of deadly train wrecks that were brought on due to engineers having pocket watches not showing the precise time of day. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevlt directed the National Bureau of Standards to set tests for the accuracy of watches.

In order to compete with the accuracy of the timepieces being put out by the Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, PA., in 1910 Elgin Watch built the above planetarium. The observatory was sited on the top of a hill just east of the watch factory.

To measure the time, a transit telescope was used to very accurate identify the transit or meridan (due-south) crossing of the stars. From these observations the observatory's astronomer's were able to accurately determine the local time. To convert these stellar observations into the current time, an instrument called a chrongraph was used. To store this infromation the observatory used two Riefler clocks. One of these was kept at sidereal time and the other was set to standard time. These German-built clocks were the most accurate timekeepers of the day.

To further insure the accuracy of these clocks, they were housed in a vault that insulated them from the outside world. To minimize any vibrations that might affect the clocks, each ws mounted on a concrete pier that extended 60 feet down in the ground. Since temperature could also effect the accuracy of the clocks, a system of light bulbs was used to maintain the vault at a temperature of 81 degrees F. within a plus/minus variation of only 2/10 of 1 degree. Another factor that could effect accuracy was changes in air pressure. To eliminate this problem the clocks were housed inside glass housings. To take advantage of the measurable effect of air pressure on the clocks, a system was set up so that air could be be pumped into or out of the sealed housings in order to alter the clocks rate of time.

The Elgin observatory possessed a shortwave transmitter, which operated under an experimental license from the FCC for the transmission of radio time signals. The 500 watt crystal controlled transmitter W9XAM operated on a frequency of 4,797.5 (62.51 meters). This was pretty much today the same principle as WWV, the National Bureau Standards out of Ft. Collins Colorado. In the end, the advantages in technology that created the Observatory also resulted in its demise. The accuracy was surpassed by more other more accurate methods of timekeeping, like the atomic clock. As a result, the Elgin National Watch Company closed the doors to its Observatory in 1958. Furtunately the Observatory reached a better fate than the the Watch Company building, and two years later it was donated to the school district and still stands today. Through the efforts of Planetarium Director Gary Kutina, the Elgin U-46 Planetarium was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in August 1994.

Info obtained from the Planetary Studies Foundation and from the Elgin WatchCompany employee monthly publication "The Watch Word".


Elgin National Watch Company
History Page
The Depot
Elgin At The World's Fair
Some Unique Elgins
The Last Seconds
The Elgin Site Today