Peter Henlein

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Monument to Henlein by Max Meißner, in Hefnersplatz, Nuremberg

Peter Henlein (also spelled Henle or Hele)[1] (1485 - August 1542), a locksmith and clockmaker of Nuremberg, Germany, is often considered the inventor of the watch.[2][3] He was one of the first craftsmen to make small ornamental Taschenuhren, portable clocks which were often worn as pendants or attached to clothing,[4] regarded as the first watches. Many sources also erroneously credit him as the inventor of the mainspring.[1][5][6][7]

Early life[edit]

Little is known about Henlein's life. He apparently apprenticed in his youth as a locksmith. At the time, locksmiths were among the few craftsmen with the skills and tools to enter the new field of clockmaking,[8] and Henlein also became a clockmaker. On September 7, 1504, he was involved in a brawl in which a fellow locksmith, George Glaser, was killed. He sought asylum at a local Franciscan monastery, where he stayed for four years, until 1508. In 1509 he became a master in the city's locksmith guild.[2]

Small wearable clocks[edit]

He became known as a maker of small portable ornamental spring-powered brass clocks, very rare and expensive,[2] which were fashionable among the nobility of the time. These were sometimes worn as pendants or attached to clothing,[9] and so may be considered the first watches, although at over 3 inches long[4] they were bigger than the first true pocketwatches which appeared about a century later, and were not able to fit in pockets.

He is mentioned in the city's records as the supplier of small spring-driven clocks, which were given as gifts to important people.[2] He was supposedly the first craftsman to build clockworks into "Bisamköpfe", small containers fashioned from precious metals for fragrances or disinfectants.[2] For example a Nuremberg paper records that in 1524 he was paid 15 florins for a gilt musk-ball watch.[10] He also built a tower clock for Lichtenau castle in 1541, and was known as a maker of scientific instruments.[2]

An early "clock-watch" (Taschenuhr), 2nd half of the 16th century.


Henlein's fame is mostly due to a passage by Johann Cochläus in the 1511 Cosmographia by Pomponius Mela:[1][2]

Peter Hele, still a young man, fashions works which even the most learned mathematicians admire. He shapes many-wheeled clocks out of small bits of iron, which run and chime the hours without weights for forty hours, whether carried at the breast or in a handbag

His reputation as the inventor of the watch came after his rise to popular consciousness in the 19th century, through a novel by Karl Spindler, Der Nürnberger Sophokles.[2] This was made into a 1939 film, and his likeness appeared on a 1942 German stamp.[2]

However, although he was a notable and talented clockmaker, there were other clockmakers making small clocks at the time,[3][8][10] and no contemporary source from his time credits him with inventing anything.[2] The mainspring which made portable clocks possible, often attributed to him,[1][5][6][7] actually appeared in the early 15th century, almost a century before his work.[11][12] Perhaps the most that was said of him by his peers comes from Johann Neudorfer in 1547 shortly after his death:[2]

This . . . Henlein was very nearly the first of those who invented how to put small clocks into little boxes.

See also[edit]


  • Jürgen Abeler In Sachen Peter Henlein. Wuppertaler Uhrenmuseum, Wuppertal 1980
  • Maren Winter Der Stundensammler. Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München 2004 (Roman), ISBN 3-453-40146-8,1510: Peter Henlein invents the pocket watch
  • Thomas Eser Die Henlein-Ausstellung im Germanischen Nationalmuseum - Rueckblick, Ausblick, neue Funde. A scholarly Essay in: Jahresschrift 2015 - Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Chronometrie -Band 54, Seite 23-44. Published by Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Chronometrie, Nuernberg, ISBN 978-3-923422-23-4


  1. ^ a b c d Milham, Willis I. (1946). Time and Timekeepers. New York: MacMillan. p. 121. ISBN 0-7808-0008-7.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Dohrn-van Rossum, Gerhard; Thomas Dunlap (1996). History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. USA: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 122. ISBN 0-226-15510-2.
  3. ^ a b Cipolla, Carlo M. (2004). Clocks and Culture, 1300 to 1700. W.W. Norton & Co. p. 61. ISBN 0-393-32443-5., p.31
  4. ^ a b Carlisle, Rodney P. (2004). Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries. USA: John Wiley & Sons. p. 143. ISBN 0471244104.
  5. ^ a b Levy, Joel (2003). Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things. Firefly Books. p. 101. ISBN 155297622X.
  6. ^ a b "Clock". The New Encyclopædia Britannica. 4. Univ. of Chicago. 1974. p. 747. ISBN 0-85229-290-2.
  7. ^ a b Anzovin, Steve; Podell, Janet (2000). Famous First Facts: A record of first happenings, discoveries, and inventions in world history. H.W. Wilson. ISBN 0-8242-0958-3., p.440
  8. ^ a b Farr, James Richard (2000). Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914. London: Cambridge University Press. p. 69. ISBN 052142934X.
  9. ^ Milham, 1945, p.135
  10. ^ a b Campbell, Gordon (2006). The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts, Vol. 1. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 250–251. ISBN 0195189485.
  11. ^ Usher, Abbot Payson (1988). A History of Mechanical Inventions. Courier Dover. p. 305. ISBN 0-486-25593-X.
  12. ^ White, Lynn Jr. (1966). Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. pp. 126–127. ISBN 0-19-500266-0.

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