Saturday 4 October 2014

Men of Yore: Peter Henlein

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Peter Henlein (A Franz Meiss Statue in Nuremburg)

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 taschenuhr, 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]

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] 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 "Bisamkopfe", 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]
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 1400s, 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.

Being able to accurately know the time is something we take for granted in modern life.  After all clocks and timepieces are everywhere: wrist watches, wall clocks, i-pods, radios, clock-towers, parking machines, bus stops, railway stations, etc etc.  But someone had to first conceive of a mechanical device that could tell the time, Peter Henlein was one of those men.  He may not have been the first clock maker nor made any great innovations in clock-making but he did design and make small clocks that could be easily carried around, thereby making the clock a more practical device; a device that could be used in a number of geographical locations rather than being fixed to one particular spot.  Which is useful in the same way that many things are more useful when they are mobile rather than stationary (e.g. engines/motors, communication devices, computers etc).



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