Clock Facts  
Peter Henlein and “The Immortal Heart”
Poster for the motion picture “The Immortal Heart” by Veit Harlan, Germany, 1938
A bookmark with rather inaccurate information about Peter Henlein. Germany, around 1940
Pendant watch with striking train and alarm, hallmark HR, presumably Strasbourg, around 1600 (Inv. K-0473)
Stamp commemorating the 400th anniversary of Peter Henlein’s death. Germany, 1942
The Nuremberg Watchmaker, Peter Henlein

Many stories focus on the Nuremberg watchmaker Peter Henlein (about 1485-1542), and his reputed invention, the pocket watch. How true is this legend?

Sources referring to Peter Henlein and his “Nuremberg Egg” are scant. One book dating back to 1512 notes in a passage about Petrus Hele: “With a little bit of iron, namely, he makes clocks with many gears, which, no matter how one holds them, show and strike the time without the use of any weights, even when one wears them on one’s chest or in one’s pocket.” In another text, Henlein is mentioned as being “one of the first to have invented the making of such tiny little clocks (…).” Peter Henlein and his family were also involved in litigations, with the latter providing ample material for writers and filmmakers.

In 1913 Walter Harlan wrote the play entitled “Nuremberg Egg” which was filmed by his son Veit in 1938 under the title “The Immortal Heart”. In Harlan’s play, 16th century Nuremberg becomes stylized as the hub of the universe. The first world globe and the first portable timepiece emerged here against a backdrop of tragic events

Yet, no one knows Peter Henlein’s date of birth and it is highly doubtful whether Henlein’s portable clocks truly were the first of their kind. Nonetheless, Henlein’s popularity endured unfailingly and to this day rousing debates dispute whether or not Peter Henlein can rightfully be called the inventor of the pocket watch.

Early portable clocks had hardly anything new to offer. Both the steel spring for impelling the movement and the oscillating balance could already be found in the table clocks of the late 15th century. The sole innovation was the reduction in size of the mechanism. Nonetheless, the story of the invention of the portable clock by the Nuremberg locksmith, Peter Heinlein, has found its place in the collective memory.