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Ingenious little watch made by Phineas Davis

Upon seeing the tiny watch George Sellers wrote “it was a beautiful piece of workmanship considering the tools Davis had at his command.” Sellers saw this watch in 1828 when papermaker George King, of York, brought it along on a trip to Philadelphia; showing it off during a paper-mould buying trip to the Sellers family business. On prior visits, George Sellers wrote, “George King always had something to say about Phineas Davis, a young man of York, whom he considered a prodigy in mechanics.”

Various newspapers, during 1821, reported on the ingenious little watch made at Yorktown, Pennsylvania, by Phineas Davis. It was reported the watch keeps excellent time and goes for thirty hours. Also reporting the gold cased patent lever watch has a diameter a fraction less than five eights of an inch and not quite three sixteenths of an inch in depth. Using today’s coins, the watch size and depth is roughly equivalent to a stack of three dimes.

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Over the last two week’s I discovered some neat bonus research finds concerning this watch as I put the finishing touches on my presentation given at the Old Timers & Fellows Luncheon yesterday during the 2018 Diamond Jubilee National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors Convention at the York Expo Center. Old Timers hold the lowest 200 member numbers in the association and Fellows are elected per significant time volunteered and/or support given to the association.

The Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia displays a Phineas Davis manufactured clock; made for Mr. & Mrs. Edwin A. Swift, likely sometime before Davis got into the foundry business. “In 1819, Phineas Davis and James Webb started the first large iron foundry and furnace in York. It was located on the corner of Newberry and King Streets. They employed quite a number of men.” This quote is per page 564 of Gibson’s 1886 History of York County, PA.

Phineas Davis was issued his first United States Patent on February 17, 1821, for a Vibratory Steam Engine. This was a compact steam engine sold via ads in coastal cities’ newspapers from New York to New Orleans. The ads noted this style of steam engine has a natural role to power boats. I believe the 1825 iron steamboat Codorus utilized this type of engine since it has a much higher power to weight ratio than piston-cylinder steam engines used in locomotives.

Besides the “Steam Engines for Sale” ads in newspapers, live demonstrations were conducted using a working model; plus often the tiny watch was also on hand, as an attention grabber, to help drum up sales for the vibratory steam engines. So far I’ve discovered such notices in Philadelphia and New York newspapers. As an example the following notice appeared in the Tuesday October 30th 1821 issue of The Evening Post in New York City:

“A working model of Davis, Owen, Brown and Webb’s Vibratory Steam Engine, may be seen at Niblo’s Bank Coffee House, at any time between the hours of ten and two o’clock, on Thursday, the 1st of Nov. A patent lever gold watch, made by the inventor of the Engine, and the smallest ever made, will, at the same time, be shown to visitors.”

In addition to James Webb, Israel Gardner was also an early partner in the foundry and shops on the corner of Newberry and King Streets. Various sources are conflicting; if Phineas Davis first partnered with James Webb or Israel Gardner.

The tiny watch was supposedly passed down to Phineas Davis’ son Willis Davis. There is a correctly aged Willis Davis residing in the High Street Ward Orphanage in Philadelphia during 1850; however I’m still not certain that is Phineas’ son.

Willis Davis supposedly received an appointment to the United States Navy prior to the Civil War. During the Civil War he fought for the Confederates. Attempts to find further records for Willis were not successful; leaving dead ends in locating descendants to which the watch may have passed. I followed up on a clue that the tiny watch might be in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution; however that clue did not pan out.

Within that yorkblog.com site, the York Daily Record is presently experiencing gremlins, which, on some platforms, results in a new window opening at findbetterresults.com; a site no longer used by the York Daily Record. While the York Daily Record works on correcting this problem, simply close that window; the linked blog page, within yorkblog.com, that you were intending to reach should appear.

The gremlin also appears on the other yorkblog.com sites: Cannonball site of Scott Mingus, Only in York County site of Joan Concilio, Universal York site of June Lloyd, and York Town Square site of Jim McClure, where you can continue to access Jim’s older posts prior to October 30, 2015. As with all the yorkblog.com sites, the “Search this blog” within the page continues to be a fantastic search tool within each individual site.

Links to related posts include:

Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts