Invention of the Watch Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The invention of the first watch, a miniature spring-driven clock, revolutionized timekeeping and forever changed how individuals think about and relate to time. Peter Henlein of Nuremberg is the first named maker of an early spherical type of watch, later referred to as the Nuremberg Egg.

Summary of Event

The miniaturization of the mechanical clock to the size and portability of a watch was a gradual process that involved many unknown individuals and spanned more than two hundred years. Watch, invention of Henlein, Peter Cochlaeus, Johannes Melanchthon, Philipp Brunelleschi, Filippo Leonardo da Vinci Brunelleschi, Filippo Henlein, Peter Cochlaeus, Johannes Neudoerfer, Johann Melanchthon, Philipp Sforza, Ludovico Leonardo da Vinci

Invented probably in the thirteenth century to help regulate monastic life, the first clocks were large iron machines possessing a striking mechanism and powered by weights attached to a long, heavy cord. To function, the clocks had to be placed high above ground so that gravity could pull their weights down gradually. By the early fourteenth century, such clocks were placed in municipal towers and served as sources of civic pride.

Later in the century, the wheelworks were reduced just enough (without losing much accuracy) so that clocks could be placed on walls and pedestals and even transported. The clocks could not function while in transit, however, and had to be reset by an expert at their destination. Such portable clocks were expensive rarities, possessed by monarchs and popes only.

The early fifteenth century saw a major breakthrough in the portability of clocks. A new source of power—the spring—was invented to replace the cumbersome weights. Springs had the advantage over gravity-pulled weights because they required no pedestal and could function in any position—even in transit. Because springs do not release their energy in a uniform manner, a cone with spiral winding groves (a fusee) compensated for the spring’s ever-decreasing force.

The earliest known example of a spring-drive clock with fusee is the Burgundy clock, housed in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg and dated around 1430. The first literary reference to the use of springs occurs in Antonio Manetti’s biography (wr. c. 1480’) of the Florentine architect and engineer, Filippo Brunelleschi, who is most famous for designing and building the dome of the cathedral of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore (1417-1436). Brunelleschi most likely tinkered with clock springs in his youth.

Although no name can be attached to the invention of the weight-driven mechanical clock or its adaptation to spring power, tradition gives credit for the invention of the watch, or miniature spring-driven clock, to the Nuremberg watchmaker and locksmith, Peter Henlein. Born probably around 1480 in Nuremberg, Henlein (sometimes referred to as Hele, a Nuremberger dialectical corruption of Henlein) became a master in the Nuremberg guild of locksmiths (which included clock makers who similarly made fine mechanisms in iron) in 1509. Writing about important Germans in his short description of Germany (Brevis Germaniae descriptio Brevis Germaniae descriptio (Cochlaeus) , 1512), scholar Johannes Cochlaeus noted,

Each day more subtle things are invented. Thus Peter Hele, still quite a young man, makes works which even very learned mathematicians [cosmographers] admire, for from a little bit of iron he makes clocks composed of many wheels which, however wound, will run without weights and show the time for forty hours, and which may be carried on the person or in a purse.

This is the first known record concerning a watchmaker. Cochlaeus did not name Peter Henlein as the inventor of watches, but he does suggest wonder at this new art. The fact that Henlein’s watches ran for forty hours raises the possibility that he used—and possibly invented—the stackfreed (a curved metal spring brake) to regulate the power of the spring, rather than a fusee. The stackfreed makes for less accuracy but for a longer running time. It also allows for the manufacture of thinner watches, though this does not appear to be the type produced by Henlein.

In his 1547 treatise on Nuremberg artists and artisans, Johann Neudoerfer stated that an “Andreas Henlein” was “nearly the first” to make clocks small enough to fit into little musk boxes (Bisam Koepf). Moreover, the Nuremberg archives record payments to an “H. Henlein” for watches commissioned as gifts of state, one of which was housed inside a “Bisam-äpfel” (musk apple). Sixteenth century musk boxes were sometimes called musk apples because of their spherical shape. Carried around the neck on a chain, musk apple watches were likely to have been the earliest watches because their height would have allowed ample space for the conical fusee, though it cannot be ruled out that tiny drum clocks with attached metal loops might have predated the use of musk containers. The watches’ spherical shape—which developed into an oval by the next century—encouraged a misreading and mistranslation of German satirist Johann Fischart’s phrase “Noernbergischen lebendigen Aeurlein” (lovely little clocks of Nuremberg) as Nuremberger “Eierlein” (little eggs).

From these sixteenth century references, it would seem that there existed a family of Henleins (Andreas, Peter, and “H” standing for Hermann, Peter’s brother) who worked in the miniature clock or watch business, possibly the first to make watches their specialty. Also, Nuremberg probably was the first city to treat the watch as a state symbol. Peter Henlein is not described as the inventor of watches until 1891 in a pamphlet that generated considerable critical controversy. Henlein’s role as inventor of the Nuremberg Egg Nuremberg Egg appears to have received particular emphasis in fascist Germany when a film called “Das unsterbliche Herz” (1939; the immortal heart) and a postage stamp (1942) were produced in his honor.

Few spherical watches exist today, and none can be linked to Henlein or even securely associated with the city of Nuremberg. Only one bears a date of 1530, making it the earliest dated watch, and it belonged to the Protestant reformer, Philipp Melanchthon. It might have been given to him as a gift for his work on the Augsburg Confession, which also was completed in 1530. It was produced in southern Germany, probably in Nuremberg.

Although Nuremberg and Augsburg are likely to have been the first centers of watch production and the Henleins one of the first families to specialize in this art, it is possible that the very first watches were made elsewhere. For example, there is a report by Jacopo Trotti addressed to the duke of Ferrara from 1488 that Ludovico Sforza in Milan was having three fancy jackets made, each with a tiny chiming clock attached. Since Leonardo da Vinci was working for Sforza in those years (1482-1500) and since there are drawings of watch escapements with springs and fusees in his notebooks, it is possible to hypothesize that these early watches were Leonardo’s invention.

Significance

The invention of ever-smaller clocks is of great significance to the history of time, time consciousness, and technology. It appears that the clock was developed to satisfy the needs of the population, since the desire for portability existed before the manufacture of truly portable clocks. Once the clock was given a spring instead of weights, it was just a small step to the most portable timepiece of all: the watch.

First available in the home and then made portable, mechanical timepieces in turn affected the way people related to the passage of time. The presence of timepieces divided the day into twenty-four equal hours, a process initiated by larger public clocks. While the hand and bell of the public tower clock are but distant and intermittent reminders of the passage of the hours, a readily available watch encouraged the internalization and personal management of time segments.

Time—to use the words of the fifteenth century Italian humanist, Leon Battista Alberti—became a third human component, after the soul and the body. Ever present and able to be monitored, time also became more precious. Its loss or wasting came to be that much more devastating.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abeler, Jürgen. In Sachen Peter Henlein. Wuppertal, Germany: Selbstverlage, 1980. The most recent scholarly treatment of Peter Henlein’s historical role as clock and watchmaker, with references to all earlier literature. In German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dohrn-van Rossum, Gerhard. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. A concise and intelligent discussion of the miniaturization of the clock set (including a short discussion of Henlein and Nuremberg) within a broader analysis of how clocks and watches function in society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gahtan, Maia Wellington, and George Thomas. “GOTT ALLEIN DIE EHRE, engraved on Philipp Melanchthon’s Watch of 1530.” Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001): 249-272. A description and historical analysis of the earliest dated watch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klaus, Maurice. Die deutsche Räderuhr: Zur Kunst und Technik des mechanischen Zeitmessers im deutschen Sprachraum. 2 vols. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1976. Offers the most comprehensive survey of early German clock and watch making. In German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Landes, David. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. The chapter “My Time Is My Time” is especially relevant. A lively discussion of the impact of the mechanical clock on Western civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morpurgo, Enrico. L’origine dell’orologio tascabile. Rome: Edizioni La Clessidra, 1954. Examines the theory that the watch was invented in Italy. In Italian.

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

c. 1560’s: Invention of the “Lead” Pencil

1582: Gregory XIII Reforms the Calendar

Categories: History Content