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From The Editors: Not on Mark Twain's Watch

Larry Bean

IWC, The International Watch Co. of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, is not to be confused with the Independent Watch Co. of Fredonia, N.Y. The former has been in business since 1868, making high-quality timepieces such as the Da Vinci Chronograph that appears in this issue in "Restarting the Clock", a feature on new chronographs. The latter company was formed in 1880 by Edward and Clarence Howard, a pair of patent medicine salesmen, and dissolved five years later, but not before the brothers attempted to swindle its stockholders, or so contended Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), one of those investors.

In 1881, during an era when dozens of watchmaking businesses operated in the United States, Clemens invested $5,000 in the Independent Watch Co. (which was reorganized as the Fredonia Watch Co. in 1883) and authorized the firm to produce and market a Mark Twain pocket watch. It was an early example of a celebrity-endorsed product, but unlike the George Foreman Grill or the Suzanne Somers ThighMaster of the following century, the Mark Twain watch never generated any rewards for its namesake.

The Independent Watch Co. began making the timepieces in 1882, and a few examples still exist. However, they have more value to Mark Twain enthusiasts than to watch collectors, because, as noted in the 1888 book The Watch Factories of America, Past and Present, "the movements were anything but satisfactory, as the escapements were faulty and the general finish poor."

Prior to the company’s shuttering and shortly before the release of the Mark Twain watch, Clemens learned that the Howard brothers had declared an allegedly bogus stock dividend and used this sign of apparent prosperity, along with the Clemens affiliation, to sell most of their remaining interest in the firm. The action prompted Clemens to identify the Howard brothers in his correspondences as "the watch thieves."

A few years earlier, watchmakers had been a source of annoyance in Twain’s fiction, in the 1875 sketch "My Watch: An Instructive Little Tale." In the story—which one might interpret as a criticism of imperialism or just a condemnation of incompetence—the narrator recounts his mounting frustrations with a series of watchmakers who not only fail to repair his timepiece but render it progressively less functional. Finally the owner brings the timepiece to the shop of a watchmaker whom he recognizes as a former steamboat engineer, "and not a good engineer, either." The watchmaker suggests that the timepiece produces too much steam and that he can fix it by placing a monkey wrench on the safety valve. "I brained him on the spot, and had him buried at my own expense," wrote Twain.

In the story, the watch owner laments that he had spent $2,000 or $3,000 to repair an item that had cost him only $200. In this respect, the tale foreshadowed some of Clemens’ real-life experiences as an entrepreneur and investor. As noted by a host of biographers and most recently by Peter Krass in Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends: The Business Adventures of Mark Twain, Chronic Speculator and Entrepreneur (John Wiley & Sons, 2007), Clemens entered into many ill-fated business schemes. From 1880 through 1905, he lost tens of thousands of dollars in, among other ventures, an engraving process, a publishing company, and a health-food supplement. His most costly investment involved the Paige Compositor, an automated typesetting machine into which he sank as much as $300,000 (the equivalent of nearly $5 million today, writes Krass) over the course of a decade. "[Clemens] seems to have pulled out suckers while others were landing trout," wrote Samuel Webster in his 1946 book, Mark Twain, Business Man.

(As a businessman, Clemens was not completely incompetent. According to Krass, through book royalties, speaking engagements, and more prudent investments in blue-chip stocks, Clemens was earning today’s equivalent of $3.5 million annually by the turn of the last century.)

Next to his earlier and later squanders, the $5,000 that Clemens stood to lose with the Independent Watch Co. was negligible. Nevertheless, he planned to punish the Howard brothers for their apparent deceit. Clemens prepared an advertisement to be published in the local and regional newspapers around Fredonia. The ad announced the sale of Clemens’ stock and, in the spirit of full disclosure, also informed would-be buyers how the Howard brothers had abandoned the company and its investors—most of whom lived in the Fredonia area and would see the notice.

Before Clemens could place the ad, the Howards agreed to refund his investment. If the brothers were familiar with Twain, and knew how the writer preferred to settle accounts with watchmakers, they might have feared retribution more severe than public humiliation.

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