Peter Henlein († August 1542 ibid) was a German master locksmith who worked as a clockmaker. He is credited in Germany with the invention of the body-worn watch.
Not much is known for sure about the life of Peter Henlein, who came from a Nuremberg family. His father was the red smith Peter I Henlein, married to Barbara Henlein, a son of the red smith and gunsmith Eberhard Heyllein († 1468). Until about 1481, Peter I. Henlein and his family had a property in today”s Tucherstraße 41.
Around 1495, Peter Henlein was an apprentice locksmith. After a young Nuremberg master locksmith was killed in a brawl on September 8, 1504, Henlein fled as a participant to the asylum of the Barfüßerkloster (on the site of today”s Hypovereinsbank on Lorenzer Platz) and was granted monastic asylum there. About two months later he was granted safe conduct. A four-year trial followed, during which Henlein was sentenced to pay a fine to the victim”s children. On November 16, 1509, Henlein, a journeyman locksmith, then became master locksmith of the guild in Nuremberg. Peter Henlein had a brother named Hermann, who was executed in Augsburg in 1523 for a 1516 murder of an eight-year-old girl at Nuremberg”s Hauptmarkt (near today”s Prantl-Stein). (While trying to help his brother in the trial, Peter Henlein is said to have committed a crime himself. Also in 1529 for a brawl and in 1530 he again came into conflict with the law). After the death of his first wife, Kunigunde, Peter Henlein married around 1520
Before November 1511, Henlein was already making small iron watches “that could be taken anywhere”.In 1512, Peter Henlein was mentioned by the humanist Johannes Cochläus in his Short Description of Germany (these were said to run for 40 hours “even when carried in a pocket in the folds of the garment”. According to the Cochläus passage, Henlein was considered the first in Germany to realize watches that could be worn on the body.
Henlein”s portable clocks may have been shaped like a musk apple, which was very popular around 1500. In addition, they may also have been box-shaped. A bisama apple clock by Henlein is documented for the first time around 1524 (According to the Nuremberg city records, on January 11, 1524, he received 15 fl. (florins) for a “vergulten pysn Apffel für all Ding mit einem Oraiologium”). There is a suggestion that some of his portable clocks also had a striking mechanism. The latter is based on a passage in Cochlaeus” geography book published in 1512 (if the Latin ”pulsant” is to be translated as ”beat” and not, say, ”tick”). These clocks are not to be confused with the Nuremberg eggs, a clock form that came into being only after Henlein”s death. In any case, the term is a verbalization of the then common term for Ührlein.
A box-shaped clock in the British Museum in London can be attributed to him with high probability. A watch in a musk apple case, presented on the Internet in various places and allegedly dated 1505 (Roman MDV), is also associated with Henlein due to the monogram PHN.
While products from his hand are difficult to prove, Peter Henlein is a historical figure. He also made large clocks and brought it to high reputation and some prosperity. Henlein is not documented as a renowned watchmaker and watch expert before 1520. Among his customers were princes such as Albrecht of Brandenburg (end of 1529) and the Mecklenburg-Schwerin ducal court in Schwerin, which Henlein supplied with small clocks between 1526 and 1542. Nuremberg city records name Henlein more frequently as a contractor and payee from the 1520s onward. In January 1525, Henlein received his payment for a “selbgeend arologium,” which was provided with a case that had been silver-gilded by a person named Richel (it was probably a drum or box clock).
Around 1535, Henlein repaired the “Hörlein” (an Ührlein used to control service time) in the chancellery of Nuremberg”s city hall. In the second half of 1541, Henlein was commissioned to manufacture and install a large tower clock for the Nuremberg manor of Lichtenau near Ansbach.
Henlein was active as a clock expert at about the end of 1541, when he was consulted on the church tower clock in Hersbruck for its reconstruction in the context of a church tower elevation.
For the watchmaking community of the German-speaking world, Peter Henlein (called the “inventor of the pocket watch”) has been regarded for centuries as a historical figure of integration of national importance, especially during the period of National Socialism. However, the romanticizing 1939 feature film Das unsterbliche Herz (The Immortal Heart) by Veit Harlan contributed greatly to the confusion. In watch historical literature of non-German-speaking countries, on the other hand, Henlein”s name is still rather rare today.
In the Valhalla, the commemorative plaque for Peter Henlein completes the series of 64 commemorative plaques that were installed in the opening year 1842 for those persons for whom no portrait templates were available.
In 1903, a Peter Henlein stone was dedicated in front of the German Watchmaking School in Glashütte.
In 1905, the Peter Henlein Fountain with a bronze statue of the clockmaker was created as a monument according to the design of the sculptor Max Meißner (cast in the Lenz art foundry in Nuremberg). The location of the memorial fountain is the Nuremberg Hefnersplatz in the old town of Lorenzen.
In 1995, the Peter Henlein Secondary School in Nuremberg was named after the watchmaker.
Numerous streets bear his name; apart from his home town of Nuremberg, for example, in Amberg, Augsburg, Bad Kissingen, Bremen, Cuxhaven, Forchheim, Künzell, Munich, Schönwald in the Black Forest and Wesseling on the Rhine.