The Invention of the Watch
The Watch that Was Hatched from the "Nuremburg Egg"
IN the second act of Shakespeare's play, As You Like It, when Touchstone,
the fool, meets Jaques, the sage, he draws forth a sun-dial from his pocket
and begins to moralize upon Time.
Touchstone's dial must have looked like a napkin-ring, with a stem like that
of a watch, by which to hold it up edgewise toward the sun, and a tiny hole
in the upper part of the ring through which a little sunbeam could fall upon
the inner surface whereon the hours were marked. This pinhole was perhaps
pierced through a slide, which could be adjusted up or down according to the
sun's position at the time of year. In principle, therefore, it was a
miniature of the huge dial of Ahaz of more than two thousand years before.
In another Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, Malvolio is gloating in
imagination over his coming luxury when he shall have married the heiress
and entered upon a life of wealth and leisure.
"I frown the while," says he; "and perchance wind up my watch, or play with
my--some rich jewel."
There, in those two quotations, we have the whole meaning of the watch in
the time of Queen Elizabeth. Touchstone's dial was a practical
convenience--a thing to tell the time. Malvolio's watch was a piece of
jewelry, an ornament indicating wealth and splendor. While watches had been
well known for many years, people wore them chiefly for display and told
time by means of pocket sundials.
For the first watches we must go back to about the year 1500, shortly after
America had been discovered, and when the great tower-clocks of de Vick and
Lightfoot were not much more than a century old. In the quaint old town of
Nuremberg there lived, at that time, one Peter Henlein, probably a
locksmith. But a locksmith, in those days, would be an expert mechanic--more
like a modern toolmaker; very likely an armorer also; capable of that fine
workmanship in metal which we still wonder at in our museums. Nuremberg was
then very much a medieval city, all red-tiled roofs and queer windows, where
people went about dressed in trunks and jerkins and pointed caps and pointed
shoes. It looked like Die Meistersinger, and Grimm's Fairy Tales, and
pictures by Howard Pyle and Maxfield Parrish; very much like "Spotless
Town," except that it was far from spotless.
Now, as you remember, there was not until long after this any means of
making clocks keep anything like accurate time; so, instead of improving
them, people competed with each other in devising novel and ingenious forms.
There could be no more desirable novelty than a clock small enough to stand
upon a desk or table, or even to be carried around. Such a clock could not
well be driven by weights. But Peter Henlein overcame that difficulty by
using for the motive power a coiled mainspring wound up with a ratchet, just
as we still do to-day.
There is some dispute over attributing to Henlein the credit for this
invention; but at least he did the thing, and it cannot be proved that
anybody did it before him. "Every day," wrote Johannes Coeuleus, in 1511,
"produces more ingenious inventions. A clever and comparatively young
man--Peter Henlein--creates works that are the admiration of leading
mathematicians, for, out of a little iron he constructs clocks with numerous
wheels, which, without any impulse and in any position, indicate time for
forty hours and strike, and which can be carried in the purse as well as in
There was, however, no invention of any such thing as we mean by the term
watch to-day that came complete from the mind of any one man, but the
contrivance gradually grew, in shape and structure out of the small clock
which could be worn at the belt or on a chain round the neck. It came to be
called a watch because clock meant a bell that struck the hours. But many of
the first watches had striking apparatus, and this circumstance added to the
confusion of names. We slangily call a fat, old-fashioned watch a turnip;
but the first watches were very much fatter and more old-fashioned, and
might fairly have deserved the name. Before long, Henlein was making them
oval in shape. Hence, they were called Nuremberg eggs.
Here, then, is something which we can really consider a watch. Let us see
how it compares with those that we know to-day. In the first place, being
egg-shaped, it was thick and heavy--you would not like to carry it in your
pocket. It had no crystal and only one hand--the hour-hand. So much for the
Inside, the difference was still greater. The works were made of iron and
put together with pins and rivets. It was all hand-work--expert workmanship,
indeed--but look at the works of your own watch and try to imagine cutting
the teeth in those tiny gears, or making those delicate springs with files
and hammers. As pieces of hand-workmanship, therefore, the watches made by
Henlein and his followers were remarkable; but when compared with our modern
watches, they were crude and clumsy affairs.
Furthermore, they were poor timekeepers. They had the old foliot balance
running parallel to the dial. This was all very well as long as the watch
lay on the table with the balance swinging horizontally. But as soon as it
was carried, in a perpendicular position, the arms of the balance had to
swing up and down, which was quite another matter. And then, of course, the
crudeness of the works produced a great deal of friction. This made it
necessary to use a very stiff mainspring, otherwise the watch would not run
at all. Such a spring exercised more pressure when fully wound than when it
was nearly run down. And so the worst fault of the foliot was that it
speeded up under increased pressure.
The first improvements, and, in fact, the only ones for nearly two hundred
years, were directed toward doing away with the unequal pressure of the
mainspring and thus make the watch keep better time. If you look into the
back of a very early watch, you may see a curious device consisting of a
curved arm ending in a pinion, which travels round an eccentric gear of
peculiar shape. This is the first type of equalizing mechanism; it was
invented in Peter Henlein's time and was called the stackfreed; but it was a
clumsy device at best and a great waste of power. Therefore it was gradually
displaced by the fusee.
Perhaps one might have felt a certain amount of pride in carrying about such
a thick, bulging mechanical toy, as were these early watches, but, as to
possessing something that would keep correct time--that was a different
matter. After admiring it and listening to its ticking, one would have to
guess as to just how far wrong it might be. People did not figure closely on
minutes and half minutes in the day of the Nuremberg egg; there was no "Wall
Street" and no commuting. And this brings us to a real event in the whole
Jacob Zech, a Swiss mechanic, living at Prague in Bohemia, Austria, about
1525, began studying the problem of the equalization of watch mechanism. He
was sure that there ought to be some better means than that of the clumsy
stackfreed. Presently he hit upon the principle of the fusee, and Gruet,
another Swiss, perfected it. At last it became possible to make a watch that
would not run fast when first wound and then go more and more slowly as it
ran down--and to do this in a really practical way. Before this time, a
watch was a clumsy piece of ticking jewelry; now it became something of a
real time-keeper. Therefore, it was not long before people began to want
Swiss watches. These were the days when skilful Swiss craftsmen worked
patiently in their little home shops, making some single watch-part and
making it extremely well, while the so-called "manufacturer" bought up these
separate parts, and assembled them into watches.
What was the fusee that brought about such a change? Not much to look at,
surely--merely a short cone with a spiral groove running about it, and a
cord, or chain, wound in this groove and fastened at the large end of the
core. Its principle and its action were very simple, and that is why it was
a great invention. Some one has said that anyone can invent a complicated
machine to do a piece of work, but it takes real brains to make a simple
machine that will do the same work.
The shaft of the fusee was attached to the great wheel which drove the
gears, and the other end of the cord was fastened to the mainspring barrel.
This is the way in which it worked: The mainspring slowly turned the barrel;
this gradually unwound the cord from the fusee and caused the fusee to turn.
When the fusee turned, the wheels also were forced to turn, and the watch
was running. At the start, the cord would unwind from the small end where
the leverage was least, but as the tension of the mainspring grew slowly
less, the leverage of the cord grew slowly greater and, consequently, the
power applied to the wheels was always of the same degree of strength. This
invention gave a great impulse to Swiss watchmaking; several centuries later
it worked to the disadvantage of English manufacturers, for they continued
to use it after other countries had found still better methods of power
The fusee was invented about the year 1525, at a time when the world was
fairly alive with new ideas. People in Europe were just beginning to realize
that they were living on a sphere and not upon a flat surface, and that
there was a vast new land on the other side of the ocean. Columbus had
crossed the Atlantic but a few years before and now explorers were making
new voyages of discovery in every direction.
Printing, invented by Gutenberg, about a century before, was becoming common
enough to be a real power in the world, bringing the thoughts of men before
the eyes of thousands without the slow and expensive process of handcopying.
The first printed copy of the Bible had made its appearance and Caxton had
set up his first printing-press--all within the lifetime of people then
living--and printing shops were being established in many places. Many
people were learning to read--a thing that could be said of very few in the
Middle Ages. They were finding out something about the wonderful forgotten
civilization of ancient times. Everywhere people's minds were stirring. We
call it the time of the Renaissance, or the rebirth of civilization, but in
some respects it was more like the awakening of the world after a long
sleep. Just as a person on waking looks first at his clock or watch, so now
the world, preparing to be busy and modern, needed some better means of
telling time. It therefore was both natural and necessary that the watch
should have received such a great improvement as the fusee at just this
Then began the age of those strange, ingenious watches which we still find
in the museums. For some time, there were only a few real improvements.
Screws and brass wheels were introduced into their construction about 1550,
and glass crystals about 1600. The minute-hand appeared occasionally; but it
was not in common use for nearly a century afterward. And that shows how
watches were regarded in those days. One would think that such an obvious
advantage as that of minute-notation would have been seized upon and
utilized at once; on the contrary, people did not seem to care much about
it. What was the use of a hand to mark the minutes, when the watch was more
likely than not to be half an hour or so in error?
For real timekeeping there were dials everywhere, and there were also fairly
good clocks in the towers; at night, watchmen patrolled the streets and
called out the hours. These watchmen were the police of the period; it was
part of their duty to call out the time, just as the modern police direct
people upon the way they wish to go. For timekeeping, the watch was still
less useful than the watchman. Made entirely by hand, it was necessarily
expensive; therefore, it was made regardless of expense. It was thought of
as Malvolio thought of it--a possession showing the wealth and station of
the wearer, a rich jewel, a toy for noblemen and for kings. Centuries were
to pass before real watches were within the reach of common people.
It is said that Edward VI was the first Englishman to possess a watch. This
young king, who reigned so short a time, will be remembered by many as the
young prince in Mark Twain's famous story The Prince and the Pauper. Mary
Queen of Scots had a small watch shaped like a skull--a cheerful fashion of
the time. Many others were shaped in the form of insects, flowers, animals,
and various other objects. Even to-day the Swiss make many watches of
Queen Elizabeth and her court selected watches as modern women do their
hats--to match their various costumes. These watches were usually worn on a
chain or ribbon round the neck and were largely for display. Several outside
cases were often supplied with watches of that period, and they were made to
fit on over that which held the works; these were variously ornamented with
jewels, tortoise-shell and intricate pierced work in gold, almost as
delicate as lace. The covers were decorated with miniature paintings, some
of which were very beautiful.
Strangely enough, it was this practise of decorating watches that later gave
us our plain white enameled dials, because enamel was the best material on
which to paint delicately. To the average museum visitor, the interest in
any collection of old watches, aside from their historic association, lies
in their marvelously ornamented cases rather than in their mechanism. And in
this he very closely repeats the feeling of their original makers or owners;
it was more important to follow fashion than to know the time.
This custom of watch-decoration continued more or less through the
eighteenth century, and even into the nineteenth, although, by that time,
watches had, as we shall see, become excellent timepieces. The story is told
that when Dresden was captured by the Prussians in 1757, they found in the
wardrobe of Count Bruhl, the Saxon Minister, a different suit of clothes for
every day in the year; each had a watch, stick, and snuff-box, appropriately
decorated, as part of each one.
Shakespeare never regarded a watch seriously. In Love's Labour's Lost he
compares a woman to
A German clock,
Still a-repairing, ever out of frame,
And never going aright, being a watch--
A century after Shakespeare's day, Doctor Johnson remarked that a dictionary
was like a watch: "The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be
expected to go quite true." And Pope says in the same vein:
'Tis with our judgments as our watches--none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
All of this reminds one of Dickens' famous character, Cap'n Cuttle, whose
watch was evidently of the old school. Readers of Dombey and Son may
remember how "the Captain drew Walter into a corner, and with a great
effort, that made his face very red, pulled up the silver watch, which was
so big and so tight in his pocket that it came out like a bung. "Wal'r,"
said the Captain, handing it over and shaking him heartily by the hand, "a
parting gift, my lad. Put it back half an hour every morning and another
quarter toward afternoon and it's a watch that'll do you credit."
The old idea of regarding the watch as a trinket rather than as a timepiece,
as an expensive toy rather than as an accurate and necessary mechanism, has
come down to us from the days when a watch was ornamented outside, because
it could not be really useful within. Even now, in spite of the modern
demand for accurate timekeeping, that attitude has not entirely died away,
as is shown by the expression "gold watch" and "silver watch." Of course,
there are really no such things; there are merely gold and silver cases for
steel, brass and nickel watches. Some people still continue this mistaken
idea by thinking of a watch merely as jewelry, as a thing meant more for
ornament than for use.