Disrupting Time is a new book by Aaron Stark that describes the rise and fall of Waltham Watch Company and one of the most interesting stories of the era: the moment, in 1876, when two Swiss spies conducted some of the most covert and consequential industrial espionage in history, changing the course of the global watch industry forever. “Their story has remained secret for 146 years,” said Stark.

Stark was kind enough to share a chapter from his book and also sent along this description. The book itself is meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating.

Set during the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, a great world’s fair that took place in Philadelphia, Disrupting Time details the never-before-told story of Jacques David and Theo Gribi. Having attended the Centennial Exhibition and witnessed the powerful Waltham Watch Company’s frighteningly novel assembly line exhibit, they knew it spelled the end of their Swiss industry. Rather than be deterred, Gribi and David were commissioned by their fellow Swiss watchmakers to acquire the secrets of America’s technology sector – the American watch industry. Using disguises, agent recruitments, and other classic methods of espionage, these spies conducted one of the most covert and consequential industrial heists in history, documenting it in a 130-page report. Their work would guide the subsequent revolution of the Swiss watch industry from artisanal art to industrial production. Their espionage and reports would remain out of public view for over a century.

Here’s the chapter and be sure to pick it up on Amazon.

Judging products at the Centennial began almost immediately after the Exhibition opened and continued throughout the summer. Overseeing the evaluation of watches was the responsibility of Professor James Watson of the University of Michigan, and Edouard Favre-Perret, a respected Swiss watchmaker. 

Watson and Favre-Perret supervised a group of eleven judges consisting of six Americans and five others representing the international contingent. As the judges overseeing precision instruments, which included the brand-new telephone, they were, perhaps, the first to publicly endorse Alexander Graham Bell’s novel invention. Watson would later recall: “In the performance of my official duty I took part in the experiments which first brought the speaking telephone to the notice of the scientific world …Prof. [Alexander Graham] Bell had made a wonderful discovery, and that its complete development would follow in the near future.”

It did not take long for the judges to recognize Waltham’s preparations. Measuring the excellence of Waltham’s watches against the global competition meant they had to be tested using a standard performance metric. This was done by calculating a watch’s accuracy compared to astronomical movements, which was done in an observatory. The Swiss had been doing this for their best watches for decades. 

The finest Swiss watches were tested for accuracy at the astronomical observatories at Neuchâtel, built in 1857 in western Switzerland or the one in Geneva, built in 1829. The Swiss government sponsored contests through the observatories that contributed to manufacturing the best and most precise watches. Professor Watson wrote, “Nothing has done more to stimulate the Swiss manufacture toward excellent workmanship and the most careful adjustments possible, than the competitive trials which have been made for a series of years at the Observatories at Neuchâtel and Geneva.”

The U.S. Government’s national exhibit at the Centennial contained an observatory, allowing Watson and Favre-Perret to properly test the watches’ accuracy. This task was handed over to Theo Gribi, whose “services as a mechanical expert were of great value.” In June, Gribi was given ten Waltham AWC grade watches to test, which were the company’s best timepieces. Gribi’s tests, along with seeing the assembly line exhibit, inspired him to write back to Switzerland with alarm, testifying that the Swiss had been overwhelmed by the American competition.

Theo Gribi

Gribi had reason to be concerned. Not only had he witnessed Waltham’s exhibit of small machines, but he also had a chance to experience the quality of its watches as a judge. In the final testing results, he determined that at least three Waltham watches were “altogether superior to any others exhibited,” whether Swiss or American. This allowed Waltham to claim that it made the best and most precise watches in the world. His tests “were sufficient to show that [Waltham’s] claim of the production of first-class pocket chronometers was well founded.”

At the Centennial’s awards ceremony, Waltham had little competition in the eyes of the judges. Nothing the Swiss put forward came close to equaling the ingenuity of Robbins’ assembly line. One of the awards the company won was for “A System of Watchmaking.” According to the judges, Waltham’s genius lay in “originality, as being the first to adapt the system of assembling interchangeable parts to the manufacture of watches.” As a physical token, Waltham received the standard 4” bronze medal awarded to all victors. The medal was only a symbol of a much greater prize. The true reward lay in capturing global markets and further diminishing the prestige of the most-celebrated Swiss watchmakers by marketing the results of the Centennial across the world.

Meeting Mr W

Jacques David

David and Gribi’s mission to gather information about the American watch industry was a monumental task. The Centennial itself presented an obstacle for information collection. Waltham’s machines were interesting but also limited in what they displayed. The Centennial judges noted in their report that “the machines gave some idea of the nicety, novelty, and ingenuity of the mechanism employed but could give but little impression of the variety and number of the machines in the factory.” Additionally, the official Centennial rules, which remained in place throughout the Exhibition, prohibited “Sketches, drawings, photographs or other reproductions of articles exhibited” and would “only be allowed upon the joint assent of the exhibitor and the Director-General.”

While David would eventually acquire very detailed sketches of equipment and manufacturing techniques, they were not acquired at the Centennial. Nor were most of the machines he lionized in his final report displayed by Waltham at the fair. Many of the machines he sketched and described were contained only inside company factories. 

Most importantly, David and Gribi needed to learn how Waltham operated. It was obvious that machines were not the source of Waltham’s advantage since most companies used similar designs. Additionally, Edward Bally, the vocal Swiss shoe factory owner, would have told David and Gribi about the futility of simply copying American machines. Bally’s American machines had done him no good when competing with American factories. Waltham’s machines were ingenious, but they alone were not the source of Waltham’s competitive advantage. 

David and Gribi needed to understand Waltham’s culture, managerial systems, and the synergies that made it an innovative leader. Despite there being enough present at the Centennial to raise the alarm in Swiss watchmaking circles, the exhibits offered little help. David and Gribi could not complete their survey of American watch companies by simply acting as tourists wandering the grounds of Fairmount Park. They needed something more.

It was at the Centennial Exhibition that they probably first met Ambrose Webster. There is no record of the initial meeting or circumstances under which Webster became acquainted with David and Gribi, but the Centennial was almost certainly where it happened. Webster was the primary individual responsible for Waltham’s award-winning watchmaking system. He retired from Waltham in June 1876 as Waltham’s assistant superintendent and father of the company’s interchangeable parts system. His department served as the beating heart of Waltham’s vertically integrated model and was responsible for fabricating the machines used by the workers to make the watches. 

Beginning in 1857, he oversaw the machine shop and supervised only a few workers. By the time of the Centennial, the shop would grow to about 50 machinists or 6% of the entire Waltham workforce and was one of the largest single departments in the watchmaking factory. By the 1870s, he was appointed assistant superintendent, making him the third-highest company officer behind the superintendent Charles Vander Woerd and Royal Robbins.

In his retirement, Webster went to the Centennial Exhibition as a tourist. There was no grander place to observe the latest innovations in machinery than the palace of industry. He could witness hydraulic rams, steam pumps, elevators, piston engines, fire extinguishers, circular saws, and lathes, whose creators all exhibited novel developments in machine tool technology. Even some of Webster’s inventions were in use at the Waltham exhibit. Eliza Putnam was operating his Webster/Marsh Automatic Pinion Machine before astonished visitors. Visiting Machinery Hall would have been a validation of his skill and also an intellectual playground for an accomplished machinist and inventor.

Webster may have even gone to the Centennial to find old-world watchmakers like David and Gribi, intent to shop his services. Employees of companies frequently left to find new work, full of design secrets that regularly passed with veteran workers from firm to firm. Waltham’s machinists were especially in demand, with most of the American watch industry using derivations of Waltham’s machine designs. The lack of effective design protection created an opportunity for Webster. If the Swiss could be convinced to transition to automatic machinery, he would have a chance at a lucrative second career by bringing Waltham designs to Switzerland. 

David would write back to Switzerland in September 1876: “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.”

Or perhaps it was David and Gribi who realized that Webster had a set of skills and knowledge that the Swiss needed. Regardless of how it occurred, their meeting would change the course of the global watch industry for centuries to come.

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Last Update: February 9, 2023

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