HISTORY OF POCKET WATCHES


500 YEARS OF FINE MECHANICAL MAGIC


Mechanical watches

    ANTIQUE POCKET WATCHES

 


THE BEGINNINGS 

        A document in the Nuremberg records says that H. Henlein was paid 15 florins in 1524 for a gilt musk apple with a watch ("fur 1 vergulten pyan Appfel fur ali Ding mit einem Oaiologium").

        Thirteen years earlier, in 1511, the German historian Johannes Cocclaeus (1479-1552) wrote in Brevis Germaniae Descriptio: "More and more wonderful discoveries are made from day to day; a young man, Petrus Hele, makes things that amaze the most learned mathematitians, that is to say, he makes watches (horologia) with many wheels from small amounts of iron. This watches show and strike the right time for 40 hours in any position and without weights (monstrat et pulsat XL horas), even when carried one's chest or in a bag".

        This frequently quoted passage was the first specific mention of what we call a pocket watch, to be more precise, a watch that was carried on the person hanging from a chain around the neck or in a bag around the waist. These so-called self-driven watches (oralogia selbgeend), that is watches driven by a spring, became highly valued about ten years later and between 1521 and 1525 the Nuremberg Town Council gave seven of them away as gifts to important foreigners (three of these were made by Peter Henlein). In the next fifteen years only two or three such watches were given away as presents, which means that they had by this time become available to a wider circle of people, and were no longer considered as special gifts.

        It is not surprising that the first watch was probably made in Nuremberg.In the 16th centuary this German town, together with Augsburg, was the leading goldsmiths' and clockmakers' center. Sundials were made there, and so were a great number of table clocks, often also used as travelling clocks. We mention this because the watch probably originated by reducing the dimensions of the table clock so that it could be worn on a chain around the neck or at the waist.

        Peter Henlein was the only clockmaker we are certain made watches in the first half of the 16th century. Archival documents even refer to him as locksmith. However, when he died in 1542 he was called Vhrmacher.
In the 16th century clockmakers were divided into Grossuhrmacher and Kleinuhrmacher. The first made town and tower clocks, the second house clocks and watches. It is therefore difficult to say which of the Kleinuhrmacher actually made watches.


        Blois was the leading watchmakers' center in France at that time. The Paris National Library has a manuscript from 1518 by Jean Sapin, the chief tax-collector in Languedoc, which says: "Julien Coudray, watchmaker in Blois, received 200 golden ecus as payment for two fine daggers with watches in their handles, completely gilded (deux horologes toutes dorees), intended for the king's (Francois I) use." After his death in 1532, Florimond Robert, treasurer to three French kings (Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francois I), left twelve watches (French montre, which means a watch that is carried on the person, unlike house and public clocks; nevertheless, some inventories of Blois watchmakers from the early 17th century mention montres a mentre sur table, which means that montre was sometimes the name used for small table clocks, as well). It was not until 1694 that the French Academy defined the word monstre as watch. At first, this word indicated the dial (monstre d'orloge). However, most of the montres mentioned there were probably watches, especially those that had gold and silver cases.
    The city of Blois, where Francois I, Charles IX and Henri III held court, developed into one of the leading European watchmaking centers. In the reign of Francois I (1515-1547) three or four watchmakers had workshops there, by 1589 there were already twenty-eight, and in 1610 Blois had sixty-three workshops where watches were made. 
    When John Evelyn visited Blois in1644, he wrote:"Blois is a town in which the language is spoken correctly; people are very kind; the air is so good that it makes Blois the perfect place for raising the king's children. The people are so ingenious that there is no better place in France for the goldsmith and watchmaking trade.“

In 1462 Bartolomeo Manfredi sent a letter to Marquis Ludovico
Gonzaga mentioning an "orologetto", which means there may have been early watch production in Italy. It is not, however, certain that these were watches. On 7 May 1506 Bernardus Bembo wrote to Isabella de Gonzaga, mentioning "very small clocks, made by Pietro Guido, which need mending". It is not certain that these were watches, either. The term horologe, orologio (after the Greek hora= hour + logos = word, speech, term) was usual for all types of clocks so only adiltional information can show whether these were watches. The watch was not a new invention. It was probably developed by decreasing the size of the table and travelling clock, which was shaped as a shallow cylinder (barrel). When the dimensions were reduced to a diameter of about 6 cm and the height to about 2 to 3 cm, a bow was added so the watch could be hung on a chain and carried in that way. In the middle of 16th century it was feshionable for men to wear striking watches in cylindrical cases on a chain or band around their necks. The illustrated manuscript Das Trachtenbuch des Veit Konrad Schwarz says that Vaid Konrad received a watch of this kind when he visited Venice: "So hett ich aine kleine schlagende ur am hals hangen, die schanckt mir mein lieber vatter im 1557, weil ich nock zue Venedig was." ("I have such a small striking watch hanging around my neck, which was given to me by my beloved father in 1557 while I was still in Venice.").

When John Evelyn visited Blois in1644, he wrote:"Blois is a town in which the language is spoken correctly; people are very kind; the air is so good that it makes Blois the perfect place for raising the king's children. The people are so ingenious that there is no better place in France for the goldsmith and watchmaking trade.“

In 1462 Bartolomeo Manfredi sent a letter to Marquis Ludovico
Gonzaga mentioning an "orologetto", which means there may have been early watch production in Italy. It is not, however, certain that these were watches. On 7 May 1506 Bernardus Bembo wrote to Isabella de Gonzaga, mentioning "very small clocks, made by Pietro Guido, which need mending". It is not certain that these were watches, either. The term horologe, orologio (after the Greek hora= hour + logos = word, speech, term) was usual for all types of clocks so only adiltional information can show whether these were watches. The watch was not a new invention. It was probably developed by decreasing the size of the table and travelling clock, which was shaped as a shallow cylinder (barrel). When the dimensions were reduced to a diameter of about 6 cm and the height to about 2 to 3 cm, a bow was added so the watch could be hung on a chain and carried in that way. In the middle of 16th century it was feshionable for men to wear striking watches in cylindrical cases on a chain or band around their necks. The illustrated manuscript Das Trachtenbuch des Veit Konrad Schwarz says that Vaid Konrad received a watch of this kind when he visited Venice: "So hett ich aine kleine schlagende ur am hals hangen, die schanckt mir mein lieber vatter im 1557, weil ich nock zue Venedig was." ("I have such a small striking watch hanging around my neck, which was given to me by my beloved father in 1557 while I was still in Venice.").


ABOUT THE NAME

The term "pocket watch" does not define the
item it refers to in the best way. Archival documents show that these watches were not worn in the pocket but hanging on a chain around the neck or in a bag at the waist. It was not until much later, about 1675, when King Charles II brought the long waistcoat into fashion, that watches started to be worn in the pocket. Women continued to wear watches around the neck and at the waist, so the term ladies pocket watch is, in fact a language convenience. Howevwer, many languages was not managing to find a good terminus technicus for this type of watch. This can be seen in the introduction to Hugh Tait's book Clocks and Watches (Cambridge, 1983), which starts with the question,"A clock or a watch?" Tait points out that today people consider a watch as being worn on the person. In fact, the word clock derives from the Latin word clocca, which means bell, and was used for timekeepers that struck the time at certain time intervals. Today many timekeepers are called clocks even if they do not have a striking movement, and many are called watches (pocket watches) although they do.
On the other hand, the New English Dictionary, gives the oldest meaning of the word watch from 1440: Wecche, ofa clokke, meaning alarm, from watch, to awaken, which would mean that the word designates an alarm clock. This is in contradiction to the explanation given earlier, although practically all early German watches had alarm work.
Ernst von Bassermann-Jordan (Uhren, Braunschweig, 1969,) says that the German language does not have a word, like watch in English or montre in French, that would define a large group of timekeepers worn on the person. From the end of the 18th until the beginning of the 20th century most watches worn on the body were pocket watches (Taschenuhren). In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, pocket watches were only part of the group of small, portable watches. For this reason authors do not use the term Taschenuhr for early watches, but call them am Korper getragene Uhren (watches that are worn on the body).
The 1746 inventory list of Oroslavje Manor, the estate of the Counts Sermage mentions a vura sepna zlata (gold pocket watch), which is a relatively early use of the term pocket watch.



THE FIRST WATCHES

For a long time the locksmith Peter Henlein was credited with the invention of the spring, which, as the driving force, made it possible to make smaller clocks. Even Frederick James Britten (1843-1913), author of the famousbook Old Clocks and Watches and their Makers, considered that Henlein invented the spring. However, a clock shaped like a Gothic cathedral, made between 1429 and 1435 for the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good (1396-1467), was spring-driven, which puts the invention of the spring a century back. On this clock the use of a spring is not as surprising as the use of a fusee to even out the torque output from the mainspring, because watches make in Nuremberg a century later still had a more primitive type of regulator.

MOVEMENTS

The first escapement used to regulate watch speed was the verge escapement (German Spindelhemmung, which is why these watches are popularly called spindle watches). The mainspring does not have uniform energy, in other words, its energy is greatest when the spring is fully wound, which makes the balance (foliot) oscillate about one third faster. It is, therefore, necessary to balance this energy in some way to make the watch work properly This was achieved by applying a fusee (fusee, spindle) or a stackfreed (possibly from the German starke Feder, which means strong spring). The latter was probably invented earlier, it is more primitive and was used practically exclusively in German watches. By the end of the 16th century the fusee was increasingly used in German watches, too. In England and France it was used from the earliest watches until 1800, and in chronometers and higher-quality spring-driven watches until the 20th century. The earliest German watches almost always had movements made of iron, which is not surprising considering they were made by locksmiths. It was not until the last quarter of the 16th centuary that the use of brass became more common.


SHAPES

The first watches were cylindrical. This shape derived from contemporary table clocks, however, watches were not 6 cm high (thick) but only half as much. Spherical watches were made, as well. As our first quotation shows, in the first half of the 16th century watches were sometimes placed in scent
bottles shaped as musk apples or musk balls, which used to be worn on a chain around the neck or on a rosary. In the second half of the 16th century the cylinder shape prevailed, especially in Germany. The oldest preserved French watch was made in 1551 by Jacgues de la Garde (mentioned between 1551 and 1565), and is spherical in shape. Other French watches from that period were not cylindrical, either, but round or oval, and one is tulip-shaped.
We should mention a term that is very often used in connection with early German watches, the Nuremberg egg. It is connected with the name of Peter Henlain, altough his watches, as well as other 16th century German watches, were not egg-shaped. The misunderstanding probably resulted from misreading the word Ueurlein (small watch) as Eyerlein (small egg).

MATERIALS

The first watches was usally made of a copper alloy,
like bronze or brass, which was then gilded. A relatively cheap material was probably used because the first watchmakers belonged to the locksmiths' guild and were under restrictions imposed by the goldsmiths' guild concerning the use of a precious metals. In Blois the rights of goldsmiths were protected by a clause according to which gold and silver used by watchmakers had to be bought from goldsmiths, who also struck hallmarks on the finished items. Maybe it is thanks to this very fact, i.e. that watches were made of cheap metals that were not worth melting down, that a large number of these early watches are still extant. It is possible that watches were made of gold and silver, as well, because F. Robertet's inventory list from 1532 mentions watches with cases made of precious metals, but they have not been preserved. The fact that watches were at first more highly valued as art or decorative items than as timekeepers also indicates the early use of precious metals. These watches were in the same group as jewelry and were not considered scientific instruments. They were obviously a new toy for the rich and were also valued as "court gifts", sometimes even inserted into rings, like the watch from 1585 kept in the treasury of the Munich residence. These little "jewels" were probably melted down as time passed and made into new jewelry in line with the contemporary fashion.