Watch 1505: The World's First Watch

Mar 19, 2024 0 comments

In 1987, during a school trip to London, a watchmaker apprentice stumbled upon a rare find at an antique flea market. Concealed within a box filled with antiquated metal odds and ends there was an intriguing timepiece—a small copper sphere that could be opened to reveal a smaller hemisphere within. Adorning the top of this inner sphere was a dial etched with both Roman and Arabic numerals, characteristic of the renowned pomander watch design that gained popularity in 16th-century Germany.

Unaware of the importance of his discovery, the young apprentice parted ways with the timepiece, setting off a chain of transactions that eventually led it into the possession of a private collector in 2002. It wasn't until then that the true significance and authenticity of this timepiece came to light. Now known as Watch 1505, this extraordinary artifact is believed to be the oldest known functional timepiece in existence.

The Pomander Watch of 1505. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Watch 1505 was the handiwork of renowned Nuremberg locksmith and clockmaker Peter Henlein, who is credited as one of the pioneers in crafting small ornamental portable clocks, which later evolved into what we now recognize as the first watches. These miniature timepieces were often worn as pendants or attached to clothing, reflecting a fusion of functionality and adornment.

Henlein was born and grew up in Nuremberg. Son of a brass forger, he soon entered into the profession of locksmith as an apprentice. At the time, locksmiths were among the few craftsmen with the skills and tools to enter the new field of clockmaking. In 1504, an unfortunate incident which resulted in the death of a fellow locksmith forced Henlein to take asylum in the Franciscan Monastery of Nuremberg, where he lived until 1508. Sheltered within the monastery's walls, Henlein found himself in an environment rich in scientific and astronomical knowledge. It is speculated that during his time of seclusion, Henlein gained deeper knowledge of the craft of clockmaking, possibly even crafting the masterpiece, Watch 1505.

The year of creation is known because Henlein had etched the date and his initials on the inside of the watch. At that time it was not respectable for locksmiths to sign objects they had made, so the proud inventor had to sneak in his initials in tiny, coarse engraving less than a millimeter tall that are visible only under a powerful magnifying glass. Aside from the initials, on the watch housing, there is an inscription engraved in Latin that translates as: “1505 —The time will escape me (Henlein), but I (the watch) will recognize the correct time.”

An unknown lady holding a Pomander on a gold chain. Painting by Pieter Janz. Pourbus

The production of this watch was made possible primarily by a previously unseen scale of miniaturization of the torsion pendulum and coil spring mechanism achieved by Peter Henlein, a technological innovation and novelty of the time. By making clocks portable and a wearable time measurement device, Henlein not only personalized timekeeping but changed the way we measure and manage time.

The first and most important historical tribute of Peter Henlein and his invention of a portable watch was made in 1511 by an influential figure of the time, Johannes Cochläus, a humanist and contemporary of Peter Henlein. In “Cosmographia Pomponius Mela – De Norimberga Germania Centro”, Cochläus added a passage praising Peter Henlein and his watches:

Every day they (the craftsmen of Nuremberg) invent finer things. For example, Peter Hele (Henlein), still a young man, fashions works that even the most learned mathematicians admire: for from only a little bit of iron he makes clocks with many wheels, which, no matter how one might turn them, show and chime the hours for forty hours without any weight, even when carried at the breast or in a handbag (purse).

In his lifetime, Henlein crafted many watches and instruments, including small drum-shaped timepieces known as Nuremberg eggs. He also crafted a tower clock for Lichtenau castle in 1541, and was known as a maker of sophisticated scientific instruments.

Only two pomander watches in the world exist today. The one from 1505 is in private ownership, and the Pomander Watch of Melanchthon, from 1530, is owned by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. It was most probably a gift by the City of Nuremberg to the Nuremberg Reformer Philipp Melanchthon and Peter Henlein was commissioned to create this personalized watch.

A statue of Peter Henlein in Nuremberg. Photo credit: Vitold Muratov/Wikimedia Commons


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