Timexpo, the Waterbury CT museum that celebrates all things Timex, is going to close at the end of September.
Not enough people bother to visit, says the company, which is headquartered in nearby Middlebury. Oddly enough, the facility has the largest elevator I have ever seen. According to the operating certificate posted inside it, the capacity is 7700 pounds. Figuring a mathematically tidy 200 pounds per person, that’s 38 people. I doubt that many people see it in a whole day.
With its location, tucked up close to an elevated section of Interstate 84 and a seen-better-days shopping center in an un-trendy section of downtown Waterbury, I am not surprised that few people visit it. Even armed with an address, a GPS, and the specific intent to go there, I had trouble getting to it. Just seeing the building and the massive replica of an Easter Island moai statue that stands next to it from the Interstate isn’t easy. You need to be looking in that direction in the very short period of time it is visible as you speed by, especially when the trees are full of leaves.
And while having a 40-foot representation of a Pacific island inhabitant is helpful for visibility, it certainly doesn’t scream out Timex museum. Why is it there? Well, it’s because the Timex owners in Norway (the Olsens) were friends and financial backers of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian adventurer most popularly known for his 5,000-mile voyage in 1947 across the Pacific in the Kon-Tiki from South America to the Tuamotu Islands to demonstrate that ancient people could have made long sea voyages.
Nearly a third of Timexpo’s space celebrates Heyerdahl’s life and work, and it seems out of place. Fortunately, John Cameron Swayze’s famed tagline “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” is well represented by what appears to be the actual water tank from the TV commercial, complete with the Johnson outboard with the Timex strapped onto one of the propeller blades. Mickey Mouse watches are displayed prominently too. And of course there is the obligatory store filled with watches, reminiscent of my visit to the Pez factory last year.
The history of the company is long, and a recounting of it is saved from being tedious only because Mickey Mouse came to its rescue during the Great Depression.
It began in 1857 as the Waterbury Clock Company, an operation designed to be a major user of brass produced by its parent firm, the Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Company. It soon became a large clock producer and after 1890 it also became a major manufacturer of non-jeweled pocket watches, supplying R. H. Ingersoll & Brother, a major mail order firm (the famous ‘dollar pocket watches’). Expansions between 1900 and 1915 made it the largest clock manufacturing facility in America and in 1922, the Waterbury Clock Company purchased the Ingersoll operation.
But it began to slide. By 1929, with the company close to financial ruin, executives spent the then-enormous sum of $1,500 to Disney for the exclusive right to put Mickey Mouse on a watch. It was a risk. The mouse had only been introduced the previous year. But it paid off big time.
In 1933, Mickey Mouse watches were introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair. According to the display at the museum, huge sales of Mickey Mouse watches were directly responsible for the re-employment of hundreds of former workers. The workforce grew from 300 to nearly 3,000 during the depression years of 1933 and 1935 and the company was saved.
After America entered World War II, the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company switched to manufacturing war products. In 1942, the operation was purchased by a group of Norwegian investors and in a couple years the firm became known as United States Time Corporation and introduced the popular “Timex” watch shortly after the war. In 1969, U.S. Time became Timex Corporation.
Disclaimer: I am a long-time Timex owner, having owned a series of nearly identical Indiglo models (they keep on ticking, but the crown on the stem gets worn down, necessitating a new one every decade or so). The clock in the tower of the former brass mill that houses the museum is actually the largest Indiglo clock face in the world.