United States Time and Timex – Part I of II


This postcard shows the United States Time Corporation building on Park Road Extension in Middlebury. The post card is owned by the Middlebury Historical Society. (Middlebury Historical Society image)

It Happened in Middlebury


I have worn Timex watches most of my life. When I moved to Middlebury in 1975, I was elated to find that the company’s world offices were a stone’s throw away. In need of a repair, I telephoned the Middlebury office only to find that the repair facility was in Little Rock, Arkansas!

No matter, I was proud to be in the same town with Timex Corporation, now the Timex Group USA. It has been a good neighbor here for over 75 years, and its history is integrally entwined with the town’s.

Clock production in the Naugatuck Valley began before 1812; Eli Terry Sr. (1772-1852) introduced the mass production of clocks, and Waterbury soon became a clock manufacturing town, as described in a wonderful book by Kathleen McDermott, “Timex: A Company and its Community,” from which most of this history is written.

The Waterbury Clock Company was founded in 1854 by the Waterbury brass manufacturing company Benedict & Burnham. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Waterbury Clock partnered with the Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro. watch company; in 1896 it produced the Ingersoll Yankee, a dollar pocket watch. It became so popular it was known as “the watch that made the dollar famous.”

The advent of the transcontinental railway in the middle and late 19th century forced citizens everywhere to gradually (and sometime begrudgingly) adopt a nationwide understanding of time, partly due to the need for schedules. This ultimately included time zones and daylight saving time changes and spurred the demand for all kinds of timepieces.

The company flourished into the 20th century. In 1929, a character named Mickey Mouse bounded onto the American scene in a cartoon called “Steamboat Willie.” The Waterbury Clock company secured an exclusive license to produce the Mickey Mouse watch, and sales took off after it was introduced at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago (I was later the proud owner of a Donald Duck watch – which one did you have?).

By the 1930s, Waterbury Clock Company was also making bomb fuses for the British government. As the world edged closer to war in 1940, Hitler’s Nazis invaded Norway. The families of Joaquim Lehmkuhl (1895-1984), an electrical engineer, industrialist and anti-Nazi, and Thomas Fredrik Olsen (1897-1969), owner of Fred Olsen Shipping Co., also an anti-Nazi, fled the country with their lives.

The Lehmkuhl family trudged over mountains to Norway’s west coast “on skis, on foot, and by truck and horse,” hiding by day and moving by night. They were picked up in a life boat in the North Sea and finally arrived at the Orkney Islands north of Scotland; they completed their journey aboard a Cunard liner to New York (Lehmkuhl’s obituary, Hartford Courant, 1984). The Olsens also fled their country for America.

Both families arrived in the United States in 1940 and wanted to establish a Norwegian shipping center in New York. They joined forces to discover new opportunities to help the war effort in this country, and they thought the Waterbury Clock Company could be their road to help.

In February 1941, Thomas Olsen bought a majority stake at Waterbury Clock Company and subsequently became chairman of the board and president in 1942. Serving on the board with him were Lehmkuhl, who chaired its executive committee, and Bernt Balchen (1899-1973), an aviator, aircraft engineer, military leader and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Balchen had been co-pilot and navigator with Floyd Bennett on Admiral Byrd’s flight to the North Pole and back in 1926 and served in the United States Army Air Force during World War II.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Olsen received governmental permission to build a brand new plant to manufacture precision defense equipment in Middlebury.

Bob Rafford is the Middlebury Historical Society president and Middlebury’s municipal historian. To join or contact the society, visit MiddleburyHistoricalSociety.org or call Bob at 203-206-4717.


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