Antique & Vintage Photographic Equipment

Watson Camera Research Project

Correlation of Serial Numbers to Manufacturing Date


Some years ago I purchased a Premier Tailboard camera made by W. Watson & Sons of London, assuming that it dated to sometime in the early part of the 20th Century, perhaps to about 1915 or so. It was my first camera by this respected maker.

In trying to find out more about the camera it became apparent that it was made in much the same pattern for an extended period from the 1890s right through to at least the late 1950s. I discovered an advertisement that the camera in the BJPA for 1955, and my example is comparable to the one shown in the advertisement.

That had me puzzling over how to date my own version and hoped that the serial number might give some clue. However I couldn't find any published information that provides a link between serial number and manufacturing date.

At about the same time, Cliff Bulcock published the results of his research into Sanderson cameras (Photographica World, XXX) where through careful and thorough research and analysis of available cameras, advertising and other information, Cliff was able to establish a mapping between serial ranges and year of manufacture. This excellent work inspired me to attempt to do the same thing for Watson cameras.


There are a number of well known models of cameras that were made by W. Watson & Sons [Ltd] over a very extensive period, notably the Acme field camera (including the Improved version), the Premier Tailboard and the Alpha Hand & Stand camera (several distinct variants). There are other less common cameras that were made for a shorter period such as the Detective camera, the Vanneck reflex, the Argus SLR and so on.

From advertising literature and other supporting information it is possible to identify some key dates where new models were introduced or design changes occurred. There are also other events that can be tied to a particular date (year), such as the transition to a limited company, which occurred in 1908.

However these provide only limited help in mapping the serial numbers to year of manufacture. It seems likely that there will be a need to carry out some analysis of the spread of serial data over time in order to estimate the likely distribution. What is therefore needed is a comprehensive survey of camera equipment in order to capture serial number information and characteristics of the cameras themselves.

Thus far I have been able to collect serial data from the internet and a few other collectors, providing information for about 80 cameras. This has not proven anywhere near sufficient to complete any sort of detailed analysis.

How Can You Help?

So that is where you come in! Do you have a camera made by W Watson & Sons [Ltd] of 313 High Holborn, London? If so, I would be pleased to hear from you. Please use the Contact link to email me with any information that you have about the camera.

The table below gives a summary of the information that would be useful. Don't worry if you can only provide answers to a few questions - the information may still prove useful in this research. In particular, some cameras do not seem to carry serial numbers (leather covered Alpha hand & stand cameras are a case in point). Even in such cases, I would still appreciate any information you have.

Should you be able to provide any other supporting information that might help date the camera, then clearly that would also be of benefit. If in doubt, include it and I can then decide whether it might help!

If you can, it would also be useful if you could supply a photograph, especially if you are unable to identify the camera.

Model: If you know what model you have (e.g. Acme, Alpha, Premier, Vanneck etc), then please identify it. If not, you might be able to at least identify what type of camera it is (see next entry).
Type: You may not know the model of camera. If not, please state what type of camera it is. Click on the following links to see examples that might help you identify the type (field camera, tailboard, hand & stand, reflex camera, detective camera).
Plate Size: Plate size will generally be one of the following:
¼ plate (4¼ x 3¼ inches)
½ plate (6½ x 4¼ inches)
Whole or 1/1 plate (8½ x 6½ inches)
10 x 8 inches
12 x 10 inches
You might be able to work out the size either from the dimensions of the ground glass viewing screen or a plate holder.
Lens: Supply any information you can about the lens, including the serial number if it is shown.
Shutter: Please state any information you have about the shutter (if one is fitted), including maker, model and serial number if known.
Label: Please quote the information shown on any identification plate on the camera. In particular, note whether the maker is identified as W. Watson & Sons or W. Watson & Sons Ltd.
Serial Number: Please provide the serial number of your camera, if you can find it.
The serial number is often stamped into a wooden component, often on the underside of a wood and brass camera or inside a reflex camera.
I would expect the serial number to be a 4 or 5 digit number.
Please also record where the serial number is located on the camera.
Any other supporting information: Please provide any other information that you have about the history of your camera that might help date it (when it might have been bought). If the camera caries any other markings other than the makers plate (perhaps a name plate for the retailer), please include this information too.

Thank you!