In the context of the simultaneous exhibition “8 Objects, 8 Museums” by the Leibniz research museums, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg presents one of the great mysteries of technological history: the so-called Henlein pocket watch.
The reticence in dealing with the watch was based on the fact that experts expressed doubts about the watch’s authenticity from the very beginning. A museum guide from 1930 already stated that the signature on the inside back cover of the so-called Henlein pocket watch was “without doubt a forgery, added at a later date.” Signatures are an important criterion for historical classification and assessment of an object’s quality.
The signature on the watch indicates that it was built by Peter Henlein in Nuremberg in 1510: Petrus Hele me f(ecit) Norimb(erga) 1510. However, this signature clearly constitutes a later addition. The inscription is atypical and extends across older scratches on the back cover. This shows that it was engraved at a later date – with the intention of forgery.
In 2013 and 2014, experts from various disciplines examined the pocket watch and its mechanism. High-resolution images using raking light and 3D computer tomography revealed that many of the parts did not originally belong together. In the 19th century, in particular, numerous changes and additions were made. Moreover, the parts in the mechanism show very different signs of wear.
In explanation, it was argued that this could be the result of well-intentioned repairs to an old mechanism. However, the general blueprint is too inconsistent, even allowing for frequent repairs. The Henlein pocket watch was revealed to be a largely modern construction from the end of the 19th century that had undergone multiple modifications. In fact, the suspicion remains that it could even be a complete forgery.
The history of technology’s great inventions was increasingly regarded as a national asset in the 19th century, and this also led to the search for the oldest Nuremberg watches. The first to attribute the invention of the pocket watch to Peter Henlein was Johann Gabriel Doppelmayer, a professor of mathematics from Nuremberg. This seemed to be confirmed by the Henlein pocket watch, whose inscription said everything the broad public was eager to hear.
It is known that Peter Henlein was a competent, well-established clockmaker in the city of Nuremberg. He was born around 1480, was entered in the town’s Meisterbuch (Nuremberg Book of Masters) in 1509 and died in 1542. He was known to have manufactured small watches. The German clockmaking industry had found its pioneer and elevated him to the German clock inventor – a German hero. In 1905, the City of Nuremberg built a fountain in his honour.
After 1933, all scientific scruples already published regarding Henlein and his pocket watch were cast aside with the advent of National Socialism. In 1938, Veit Harlan, one of the most prominent directors of National Socialist cinema, even made a film about Henlein, entitled “Das unsterbliche Herz” (The Immortal Heart). School books revered him as the inventor of the pocket watch, and even the 1990 edition of the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” believed this to be correct.
“8 Objects, 8 Museums” is a collaboration project between the Leibniz research museums and the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien in Tübingen in the Leibniz Year 2016.
Research project by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum regarding the so-called »Henlein pocket watch«
All documents and photos:
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Photos: Georg Janßen, Dirk Messberger, Monika Runge, Roland Schewe
Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Fürth
Fraunhofer “Developmental Centre for X-ray technology” ERZT in Fürth
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Text and object selection: Dr. Thomas Eser,
Dr. Frank Matthias Kammel, Dr. Sonja Mißfeldt
Translation: Hendrik Herlyn
Literature: Die älteste Taschenuhr der Welt? Der Henlein-Uhrenstreit. Vol. 16 in the series “Kulturgeschichtliche Spaziergänge” in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Nuremberg 2014