Gandhiji’s Ingersoll watch

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's one worldly possession was an Ingersoll ‘Turnip’ pocket watch, which he wore tied on a string (somewhere along, he must have lost the chain, if it had one) around his waist, hidden between the folds of his dhoti. As he bent down or stopped, the watch would spring free to dangle to reflect the setting suns rays. This one sight has been recorded by many journalists and biographers. But would somebody be interested in knowing more about that watch?Well, the watch enthusiast in me took note and here below are details that Gandhiji’s followers and researchers would be interested in. Let me start with a fact, today’s popular but cost effective (I will not use the word ‘cheap’) Timex, one that was made famous by contemporary wearers like Bill Clinton & George Bush (I myself have about 10 Timex watches) started with the Ingersoll range from the Waterbury clock company of USA.

For Gandhiji himself, the watch was important. In some ways it dictated every aspect of his wakeful life. As he sat, even while at the ashram, the gold plated pocket watch was propped up in front of him, in his line of vision. He was always very punctual and hated being late or others coming late after a time had been agreed upon.

How important was his watch to him? The answer appears in the marvelous book by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins – Freedom at Midnight. The scene is Feb 1947 and it was a nervous Viceroy Mountbatten’s first interview with Gandhiji. When the Mahatma arrived, he appeared profoundly unhappy. Mountbatten thought ‘Have we done something wrong? Oh! What a terrible way to start things? When asked is something was wrong, a slow sigh escaped the Indian leader. He said ‘They stole my watch; someone in the railway compartment coming down to Delhi stole my watch’. Mountbatten saw tears in the frail man’s eyes. But it was not probably the loss of the 8 shilling watch that hurt Gandhiji, but the loss of faith. Anyway, just six months later, in Sept 1947, a stranger who refused to provide his name asked to meet Gandhiji at Birla House, Delhi. He stated that he was the man who had stolen Gandhiji’s watch and he wanted to be forgiven. The man was taken to Gandhiji and they chatted for some time in low tones. Then Gandhiji embraced him and giggling like a child who had recovered a lost toy, called his followers to show the watch and meet the prodigal son who had returned it!!

The Connecticut based Waterbury Clock Company (founded 1857) started it all by creating a cheap range of pocket watches. Robert H. Ingersoll made the "dollar watch" famous. Ingersoll was a Michigan farm boy who arrived in New York City in 1879. He established a mail order business, engaged in manufacturing gadgets he invented, and dealt in bicycles and parts. By about 1893 he entered the watch business, selling the cheap watches that bore his name, first for $1.50, later for one dollar. He purchased 1,000 “Turnip clock-watches” from the Waterbury Company, later devising a selling plan based on common terms, common prices, a guarantee, and the Ingersoll name.. Success for the dollar watch was immediate despite mechanical inconveniences associated with the watches, best known of which was the eight or nine foot mainspring that seemingly took forever to wind. Probably the sales policies of the company, more than any other factor, led to eventual failure. The Waterbury Company sold large numbers of its watches at low wholesale prices, and they were often given away by merchants as premiums, usually with the sale of men's or boys' suits. An image of cheap merchandise, of shoddy goods at all-wool prices, came to adhere to the Waterbury; its popularity declined. The company reorganized in 1898 as the New England Watch Company, but its best efforts could not avert failure. "The watch that actually made even the dollar famous" however, ended a huge success, more than 70 million were sold by 1919, but Ingersoll's company became insolvent by 1921 and he sold its assets to Waterbury in 1922.

The Waterbury clock company later became the Timex Company. Curiously T Roosevelt once remarked while hunting in Africa that he was from the country that made the Ingersoll watches! The dollar watch was called so as a dollar was a day’s wages in the 1890’s. The dollar watch was also known as the Yankee watch. In Britain, the watch was sold as the Crown series. Later Ingersoll became synonymous with the Mickey mouse & Donald Duck series of gift watches. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 Ingersoll Limited was launched as a British public company. The new Ingersoll Gandhi Chronograph IN2700WH pictured sells for upwards of 140-200 Euro today.

Gandhiji obtained his pocket watch as a gift from his brother while studying in England. While he discarded all material other possessions, he retained the watch and was very fond of it, terming it the only useful possession he had! The watch alarm was purportedly set at 4AM every day, or so it appears, but I am not sure about this as these dollar watches never had an alarm.

Gandhiji’s watch, the watch termed very unreliable by users of that era, served him to the very end. Let us now look at the last minutes of his life
Earlier in the day someone had shown Gandhiji a clipping from the London Times, an article suggesting that the conflict between Nehru and Patel was irreconcilable. He was determined to put an end to the disunity between them, even if it meant delaying his journey to Sevagram. While the conversation continued he took his evening meal. It was now past 5 p.m., but Gandhi did not notice that he was late for the prayer meeting. Abha behn, the young wife of Kanu Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma's cousin, held up the watch, but neither Gandhi nor Patel paid any attention. After sometime Patel's daughter reminded them that it was ten minutes past five and that Gandhi had been late for his prayer meeting, whereupon the two men rose.

As he made his way to the prayer meeting, supported by Manu and Abha, whom he called his "walking-sticks", he complained: "I am late by ten minutes. I hate being late. I like to be at the prayer punctually at the stroke of five."

They were probably his last words, not ‘Hey Raam’, as is the popular myth…

Others report the last conversation more in detail as follows - Gandhiji was upset for the delay and said to them, "You are my watches, why should I consult a watch? I do not like this delay at all. I cannot tolerate even one minute's delay for prayers."
Abha and Manu teased Gandhi for neglecting his watch and his timekeepers both. "It is your fault that I am 10 minutes late," he responded. "It is the duty of nurses to carry on their work even if God himself should be present there. If it is time to give medicine to a patient and you hesitate, the poor patient may die. I hate it if I am late for prayers even by a minute.”

At about 5:16, Godse shot Gandhi three times with his Beretta, after greeting him.

Gandhi's frail body slowly sank to the ground beside Manu, his hands still frozen in namaste as if he was greeting his assassin. In between the folds of the blood-soaked dhoti, which Gandhi was wearing, drops of blood had fallen on Gandhi's favorite eight-shilling Ingersoll watch. The watch stopped on impact with the ground, and showed the time, for the last time: 5.17 p.m. remaining the most reliable witness of the assassination. It would not serve its master or any other, anymore.

The importance of this watch is even stressed by Gandhi detractor Gopal Godse, Nathuram’s brother and partner in crime. He says- "I had not done anything for which I should repent," referring to the conspiracy to kill Gandhi. "If I had wanted to steal Gandhi's watch and I was caught, I would want to commit suicide. It would be shameful. We had not done anything of that sort."

Kantilal Gandhi has this anecdote - We were traveling in a third class railway compartment during Bapu's tour in the D. P. in 1929. Even in a moving train he used to attend to his' correspondence or write for his weeklies, Young India and Navajivan. It was about five o'clock in the evening. His watch was lying among the papers in front of him. I was sitting with a watch on my wrist just opposite to him. He asked me what the time was. I looked at my watch and told him it was five o'clock. He also saw my watch through his spectacles and noticed there was still one minute to five. Even looking at a watch for time was not a trivial thing for him. He would not do that in a cursory way. But in this case it was not lack of proper observation on my part. I had also noticed that there was one minute to five. Only I did not attach much value to that minute. He stopped writing and exclaimed: "Is it five?" I replied with a guilty conscience: "No, Bapu, it is one minute to five." "Well, Kanti," he said, "what is the use of keeping a wrist watch? You have no value of time. Do you know how many days or months thirty crores of minutes would make? What a colossal waste of time it would mean for our poor country? It seems you have not even understood why I talk of the Charkha. Again, you don't respect truth as you know it, would it have cost more energy to say: 'It is one minute to five,' than to say: 'It is five o'clock'?" Thus he went on rebuking me for about fifteen, to twenty minutes till it was time for his evening meals.

An old Time magazine issue has this Q&A on Gandhiji’s watch - Subscriber Smith & Reader Jones would like to have TIME'S explanation for the following ambiguous statement which appeared in TIME, Oct. 5: "Abruptly St. Gandhi jerked out his dollar watch, announced that it was 7 p.m.—time to pray." From where was the dollar watch jerked? GEORGE N. JONES State College of Washington Pullman, Wash. The Gandhi watch is jerked from a fold of the Mahatma's first shawl (the one next his skin) to which he secures his large ("dollar") watch by a large ("baby's") safety pin. In England St. Gandhi wears a second and often a third shawl. The three cover him tent-wise when he sits cross-legged, showing only his big toes, small hands and birdlike poll topped with stiff black & white hairs clipped to a length of ⅜-in.—ED.

Back to today - But at the Breguet (high end Swiss watch) premier in Taj West End in Bangalore, someone chose to mix the impeccable imperial history with that of the "half naked fakir" who had looked askance at the mighty imperial power: "Do you know that pocket watches are called Gandhi watches in India because he used them all the time?" An embarrassed pause before Schulthess replied: "No, I didn't know that."

The pocket watch that Gandhiji wore on his khadi dhoti (come to think of it, a pretty incongruous combination!) served him well and he was known for his punctuality as he was for unwavering faith in truth and freedom.

Pics – The Ingersoll pics come from various websites, thanks. The dollar watch is the one without the minute dial and presumably the one Gandhiji carried. The modern chronograph is the one marketed by Ingersoll UK as the Gandhi watch. Looking a the possessions of Gandhiji, you can see the Ingersoll towards the top left, unfortunately the picture is not too clear.


Blog Update – Feb 22nd, 2009Recently I saw on the headlines that the Gandhiji pocket watch, slippers and glasses have been put up for auction in New York on March 4th 2009. From pictures and press clippings that followed, it turned out that the watch on auction was not an Ingersoll, but a Zenith (see picture attached). Now where did the historians and I go wrong in writing that his watch was an Ingersoll? Or did we? Let us take a look

The auction watch shown is an alarm pocket watch. That then shows that he could have set it for a 4AM alarm as I had read before. However the report also states that before Gandhiji had died, he had given this Zenith watch to Abha Gandhi. (The expected price is reported to swing between GBP 35K to $300K).

Let us get back to the day of his death. Gandhi museum & states -

It was 5 pm. Afternoon was fading to evening as the winter sun dipped low. Five o'clock was the appointed time for prayers. Gandhi disliked ever being late, especially for prayers. But he was not wearing his familiar Ingersoll pocket watch. These days others were his timekeepers. Manu and Abha saw the hour but dared not interrupt such an important conversation. At 5.10 they could wait no longer. Abha showed Gandhi his watch. But he was not distracted. Finally in desperation Mani intervened, and with Gandhi saying, "I must now tear myself away", the talk ended.

So here we note that his watch was Ingersoll, not a Zenith.

Was it the watch he carried, the watch his brother had gifted him? It has been stated that as he fell to the ground after being hit by the assassin’s bullets, his watch hit the ground and stopped at 5:17 (yes – this sentence could have been fictional as reported by the press then) . The watch put up on sale shows the usual watch advertisers picture of hands at 10:10.

Secondly if Gandhiji had gifted the Zenith to Abha, this was obviously a second watch.

Lapierre & Collins, The Ingersoll company itself, and many others confirm the Ingersoll dollar watch was the one that Gandhiji wore

Lapierre & Collins say in page 494 freedom at Midnight - Gandhi glanced down at his old Ingersoll, then almost leaped from his pallet. " Oh," he said to Patel "you must let me go. It is time for me to go (this somehow contradicts the statement from the Gandhi museum that he did not have the watch on the day he died). Was the Ingersoll in a tray or something & not tied to his Dhoti as others state?

Louis Fisher states Finally, therefore she (abha) picked up the Mathama's nickel-plated watch and showed it to him. The Zeniths shown is gold &nickel plated, The Ingersoll is stated to be fully gold plated.

Heirs of Tradition - By Robert E. George, Robert Sencourt confirms the watch on page 68 – Large Ingersoll fixed to his Dhoti by a safety pin.

Facets of Gandhi – BK Ahluwalia – Page 175 confirms this as his legacy

Eagle and the Peacock – S chary – Page 36 confirms this observation by British agents
M Gandhi & his apostles – Ved Mahta – Page 11

Musical Chairs – Chapin – Page 51 The most arresting feature was the big Ingersoll watch pinned to his dhoti

Antiqorium Inc who are the owners of Gandhi artifacts (including the stated Zenith pocket watch) now state - Antiquorum traced these articles to Abha Gandhi‘s adopted daughter Gita Mehta, 56, who presently lives in Rajkot and works as a teacher at Rashtriya Shala, and got permission from her to auction the watch, along with a plate and bowl. Antiquorum says on its website that clock, bowl and plate are accompanied by letters of authenticity from Gita Mehta who inherited them upon Abha's death. She wrote that these were gifts Gandhi gave to her mother in the 1940s. Abha, who died in 1995, was a close disciple of Gandhi and she married his grand nephew Kanu.

Time of India also states that this Zenith was gifted to Gandhiji by Indira Gandhi and that this was the watch that was stolen

According to the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, the Mahatma wrote in a note dated May 28, 1947, about the theft at Kanpur railway station on May 25. He wrote: ``I may add that it had a radium disc... and also a contrivance for alarm. It was a gift to me. The cost then was over 40/-. It was a Zenith watch.''The footnote states, “The reference is to Gandhiji's watch, a present from Indira Nehru, which he had been using for about 20 years, and which was stolen at Kanpur station on May 25.''

The watch is dated circa 1910-1915. Indira Gandhi was born in 1917. The Zenith watch was apparently gifted to Gandhiji around 1927 (!). Indira would have been just 10 years old at that time. How on earth could she have obtained a 1910 watch and gifted this watch to Gandhiji at an age of 10??

The letter of authenticity from Gita Mehta provided by Antiquorum states -

‘Herewith, I declare that the silver pocket watch was presented by Mahatma Gandhi to my mother in the 1940s. My mother, affectionately called “Abhaben”, was the young woman on whom Gandhiji used to lean and in whose arms he died.’“

Ryyans watch blog has carried out a study on this auction list and the details can be found at the hyperlinked site

Conclusions – The whole story is still very confusing to say the least. How did the watch gifted by Gandhiji’s brother when he went to England, suddenly become a gift from Indira Gandhi? The USA Ingersoll (recorded even by British agents & seen even by Hoover on Gandhiji) turned into a Swiss Zenith. The only answer could be that Gandhiji had gifted one of his watches to Abha!!

Flickr provides a picture by Sunnywinter of a Zenith with the hands and the hands stopped at 5:17. A telegraph article about how the auction items were procured. If you read the auction notice you will find a mention that it was a watch gifted to Abha in the 40's. Then follows text about his assasination leading one to the conclusion that this was THE watch.

One question remains – If a Zenith has now been found ( let us assume that it was another watch he once had and then gifted to Abha for time keeping) and if there was an Ingersoll, where is the Ingersoll?

I was under the impression that the Gandhi memorabilia was at the Gandhi Smriti. Since I do not recall my own visit to the museum many years ago, I will go by the description given in the Gandhi museum – Martyrdom gallery. This gallery houses the watch he wore on his death day

Here is the link that proves it – Martyrdom gallery

Blood stained dhoti and shawl and the watch worn by Mahatma Gandhi when he was assassinated.

Further study of the Ved Mehta book (Gandhi & his apostles) revealed that on his last day Gandhiji had indeed pinned the watch to his Dhoti and Abha had pointed to it indicating that he was late.

So in my opinion, Gandhijis watch was the Ingersoll, this is the one still displayed at the Gandhi museum and the Zenith was one that he possibly gifted to Abha in the 40's.


Pradeep Nair said...

Very interesting... Didn't know he was very possessive about this. Gandhiji is so inspiring. Sad our politicians have trampled upon and made a mockery of the values Gandhiji practised.

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Thanks for the trivia.
Last coupla paragraphs-font size is tooo small.

david santos said...

Excellent post.
Thank you.
Happy day

Maddy said...

thanks changed the font.
problem is firefox does not render verdana font 'small' properly at times, especially if italics is used!!it is ok with IE

harimohan said...

tks maddy for the good post
the best part i liked in it was how the watch stopped when he died and would serve none after that ....

Nanditha Prabhu said...

loved ur post..
i have loved reading freedom at midnight.. it is a very inspiring book.

Happy Kitten said...

Thank u Maddy for that wonderful post on the great man...

got to know one more trait of the Mahatma....I am sure none of us can value time the way Gandhiji valued, but we can still try...


Good piece on a great man and his affection for this one possession.
Very nice.

Anonymous said...

Good details however there is no such watch as "Ingersoll Turnip". The name is "Ingersoll Triumph". ....ron the don, watch collector.

Maddy said...

Sorry Ron the don – I have to correct you - A dictionary of slang and unconventional English, Page 1275 explains – During the 1820’s Turnip meant just a watch. By 1829 it was an old fashioned thick silver watch, ex its resemblance to a small turnip. By circa 1920 it meant the 5 shilling Ingersoll.
Time Telling Through the Ages - By Harry Chase Brearley, Robert H. Ingersoll & Bro, Ingersoll, Robt. H., & Bro, page 97 explains that ‘we slangingly call a fat old fashioned watch a ‘turnip’.

Maddy said...

Ron - But I must also add that there was an Ingersoll triumph series. Though I am still not sure if Gandhiji carried the dollar watch or the Triumph. the usage Turnip just signified 'big Ingersoll' pocket watch.

History said...

Nice post...
Gandhi was well known for his punctuality and here Gandhi's watch has also a story of its own. Really Gandhi might have been sad when his watch was stolen.

What might have been the significance of this incident in his life..Gandhi who had taught Indians that "truth is God" might have felt it as a breach of faith.
Probably he might have understood it better that only few Indians have understood the true essence of Gandhian philosophies.

Anonymous said...

Hi Maddy,

Finally had a chance to make a more thorough analysis of your entry about Gandhi's pocketwatch(es). I don't exactly know what to think either. Since we have multiple seemingly credible accounts that clearly describe the watch as alternately Ingersoll and Zenith, I think I would tend to agree with your presumption that Gandhiji owned two separate watches, an Ingersoll and a Zenith, one of which he gave to Abha.

Also a minor clarification — Antiquorum does not actually own the items. They typically auction for fees/commissions items that are actually owned and sold by third parties. The Telegraph article you link to attributes them to "Peter Ruhe, a German memorabilia collector and chairman of the GandhiServe Foundation in Berlin."

I'm still most skeptical of the spectacles. The shape is completely unlike the round shape seen in every photo I've seen. I don't know enough to be able to form opinions about the authenticity of the sandals and bowl & thali.

vipin said...

very informative
gandhi had a "videshi" watch

Maddy said...

Thanks Vipian..

Yes, indeed. That was an interesting observation.

Public Health said...

very informative..thanks a lot..

Maddy said...

Thanks PH..
glad u liked it

Anurag Kumar Lucknow said...

@vipin there were only videshi watches back then. to the best of my knowledge desi watches appeared only in 50's

Anurag Kumar Lucknow said...

@Maddy that was a terrific piece of research. My feeling is that Gandhi Ji was attached to his Ingersoll and when the Zenith was gifted to him he felt awkward being a man with fewer needs and wanted to get rid of it at earliest opportunity so gifted it away. But that is only a conjecture :-)

Maddy said...

thanks Anurag..
you are probably right, i was a little peeved that somebody was peddling the zenith purporting it to be 'the' Gandhi watch..

A said...

Fascinating read!

Mortimer Watt said...

I was very interested on your Gandhi pocket watch article and wondered if any body could shed some light on a story my late father told me.
My father was a Swiss National and a fully qualified, time served, horologist. Just after the 2nd world war the Longines Watch Company sent him to their Calcutta, India premisses which he remained for ten years.
The story goes that when his original pocket watch was stolen, Gandhi requested that the cheapest pocket watch in India be obtained for him.
This was apparently supplied by the Calcutta Pocket Watch Company who in turn ran over to my father in the Longines building in order to put a Longines movement in to the pocket watch to which he duly did. I believe they wanted to give Gandhi something a little more reliable.
I, and others, always regarded my late father as an honest gentleman and not one to be untruthful so if anybody
out there could shed some light into the movement in this watch it would be appreciated.

Maddy said...

Thanks Mortimer for jogging my brain, it has been a while since I revisited this topic. In the meantime, Zenith have advertised their relationship with Gandhiji, see link below.
They have also published a picture of the Gandhi watch showing a Zenith movement, not a Longines. The picture shows a spanking new watch, with no blemish or scratch, so I doubt if it is a picture of ‘the Gandhi watch’. Now according to Zenith, this was the watch stolen in 1947 and as we know, returned six months later. I doubt if it was the one stolen, I am still of the opinion that he wore regularly the Ingersoll given by his brother, not the Zenith, which was a standby with Abha.
Let’s assume for a moment that the Zenith was still with Abha or Gandhiji and that the Ingersoll was stolen in 1947 and this was the time the CWC supplied what you believe was a replacement with a Longines movement. This means Gandhiji ended up with three pocket watches, the Ingersoll (now at the museum), the Zenith (I don’t know where it is these days) and the CWC Longines hybrid which is not mentioned anywhere. Yet another mystery. The 29mm Longines movement can surely be inserted into other pocket watch case by an expert, of that I have no doubt. But where is it?

Maddy said...

Another scenario - what if the Ingersoll was sent in for repair/refurbishment as the Zenith was lost and had its movement replaced with a Longines? The museum piece could reveal the answer...

Maddy said...

To establish a time line, American ex-president Herbert Hoover met Gandhiji many times, between 1930 and 1946. He records - Hoover looked at a big watch hanging from a string around Gandhi's neck (hip - actually). It was an Ingersoll dollar pocket watch. Thereupon, Hoover promptly reached into his own pocket, so the story goes, and pulled out his own Ingersoll.

I think an American will recognize an Ingersoll...I believe the photo from that event can be seen here, but I cannot really make out the dial of the watch

Mortimer Watt said...

Many thanks for your reply Maddy - this is without doubt the most informative information I have received so far to solving a long standing mystery of mine.
Its food for thought, I will do a bit more research (i.e do a more through search through my late fathers artefacts kept in the attic) and see if I can come up with anything else.
I'll let you know my findings.