Peter Henlein: Inventor of Watches

If we think about the role of clocks and watches in modern life, it would be hard to imagine functioning without them! Society today has structured itself so that it runs according to the clock. However, as late as the mid-fifteenth century, clocks and watches, as we currently know them did not exist except perhaps in very rudimentary forms. Everything changed when a German locksmith called Peter Henlein invented a type of watch, in 1524, that was small enough to place in one’s pocket.

While recorded evidence of Peter Henlein’s early life is hard to come by, researchers do agree that he was likely born around 1480. Growing up in Nuremberg, Germany, Henlein was once implicated as a suspect in a crime case and sought refuge in a Franciscan monastery. During his time there, he took on an apprenticeship to learn how to be a locksmith. When Peter Henlein started experimenting with watch designs and technologies, he discovered the usefulness of springs. Inserting springs into a timepiece could allow the user to wind it and keep the watch ticking for several days. Although this system sounds archaic to modern readers, keep in mind that older devices relied on the sun or weights and balances to tell time. At some point, Henlein had the idea of combining the gadgetry required for watches with a container similar to the pomanders that were in popular use at the time. The resulting timepiece was a small egg-shaped container that revealed the watch when opened. It became known as the Nuremberg Egg or a pomander watch, and it was also the first portable watch in the world. Prior to Henlein’s invention, time devices were public rather than personal - they were built and displayed in town squares or at the top of large buildings. Henlein’s design completely changed the way people responded to the passing of time. Whereas life flowed at a more flexible pace earlier, the wide-spread use of watches after his invention created a much busier and fast-moving lifestyle.

As part of his other work, Henlein was occasionally commissioned to make clocks for cities. He was also embroiled in legal proceedings and pleas when his brother, Hermann, was arrested for murder and battery charges. Henlein’s pleas fell on deaf ears and Hermann was eventually put to death for his crimes. Henlein continued his work in clock-making. Records show that he married a woman called Kunigunde Ernst in 1513. It is unclear whether they were separated or if she passed away, but by 1521, Henlein had taken a woman named Margarete as his second wife. Margarete did die in 1540, and a year later, Henlein married for a third time, this time to Walburg Schreyer. He died in 1542, at around 60 years of age. In the century after Henlein’s death, watch-making progressed in leaps and bounds, with locksmiths and watchmakers fine-tuning the older designs and creating newer, more reliable models.

Although much of the world today has forgotten about Peter Henlein, he is still remembered by the community in Nuremberg. A monument bearing his image was erected in tribute to Henlein, by the German Watchmakers League. While some still argue whether Henlein can truly be considered the inventor of modern-day pocket watches, it is generally agreed that we can thank him for developing the essential technology that allowed individuals to have portable watches. Despite the prevalence of digital technology and LCD screens in modern wristwatches, many still choose to don analog timepieces – a throwback to a long line of tradition.

Have a look at the following resources to learn more about Peter Henlein and his fascinating invention.