The so-called Henlein pocket watch

Leibniz Association

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.

Proud – of a forgery
Many people in Germany and abroad are convinced that the pocket watch was invented by Peter Henlein from Nuremberg. The Germanisches Nationalmuseum is in possession of a watch that seems to confirm this – the Henlein pocket watch. However, there is something not quite right about it. 

In 1897 the Germanisches Nationalmuseum became the owner of the tin-shaped, palm-sized watch. However, the acquisition of the watch was not loudly celebrated, although a Henlein anniversary was at the horizon. Even in its publications, the museum only made very guarded reference to the object.

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 beginning of a myth
Apparently, pocket watches have been in existence since the late 15th century. We do not know what the very first examples looked like. Only since about 1530, small portable watches became common in large parts of Europe. However, the clocks were considered as something special. They were regarded as symbols of order, moderation and the transience of all earthly things. They carried the reputation of a mysteriously complicated technical marvel. Moreover, they served as a status symbol: anyone who owned a pocket watch was considered wealthy and on top of his times.

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.

An invention without inventor
Henlein as the inventor of the pocket watch – this attribution can be considered refuted today. However, he was not replaced by any other ingenious individual. Instead, today, the pocket watch’s invention is attributed to an impersonal but highly effective ‘technical intelligentsia’ that was particularly strong in the Renaissance – a time that is generally regarded as an age of great individuals. Thus, the problem of timepieces that could be worn on the body was probably solved in various European clockmaker’s workshops that worked simultaneously but independently of each other during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Germanisches Nationalmuseum
The Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg was founded 1852 and, with its collection of cultural objects from the German-speaking region, is the largest museum of its kind in Central Europe. The permanent exhibition ranges from Prehistory and Early History to the present day and includes everything from paintings and sculptures to fashion, tools and toys. In addition, it displays scientific equipment and musical instruments, porcelain and furniture. The repertory ranges from hand axes to masterworks by Albrecht Dürer und Veit Stoß and from Bauhaus classics to photographic works from a Beuys action. A selection from the approx. 1.3 million objects imparts a unique and multi-layered impression of the various epochs during a stroll through the museum’s halls.

The research at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum is particularly strengthened by the close collaboration between cultural scientists and specialists in art technology. The work is always based on objects from the museum’s own collection.

Among other things, the museum is currently researching the collection of panel paintings and the symbolic representation of peace agreements.

Credits: Story

“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

Private ownership

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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