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15th – 16th Centuries

Also Leonardo daVinci thought

about the possibility of building a
machine which could divide the day in
equal time bins and show the progress
of time. His sketch of what can be
identified as verge fusee movement
drawn in 1490 had been adapted from
an even earlier drawing.

Springs were first employed to power

clocks in the 15th century, to make them
smaller and portable. These early spring-driven clocks were much less accurate than
weight-driven clocks. Unlike a weight on a cord, which exerts a constant force to turn the
clock’s wheels, the force a spring exerts diminishes as the spring unwinds. The primitive
verge and foliot timekeeping mechanism, used in all early clocks, was sensitive to
changes in drive force. So spring-driven clocks slowed down over time as the
mainspring unwound. This problem is called lack of isochronism.

Two solutions to this problem appeared

with the first spring driven clocks; the
stackfreed and the fusee. The
stackfreed, a crude cam compensator,
added a lot of friction and was
abandoned after less than a
century. The fusee was a much more
lasting idea. As the movement ran, the tapering shape of the fusee pulley continuously
changed the mechanical advantage of the pull from the mainspring, compensating for
the diminishing spring force. Clockmakers apparently empirically discovered the correct
shape for the fusee, which is not a simple cone but a hyperboloid. The first fusees were
long and slender, but later ones have a more squat compact shape. Fusees became the
standard method of getting constant force from a mainspring, used in most spring-wound
clocks, and watches when they appeared in the 17th century.

At first the fusee cord was made of gut, or sometimes wire. Around 1650 chains began to
be used, which lasted longer. Gruet of Geneva is widely credited with introducing them in
1664, although the first reference to a fusee chain is around 1540. Fusees designed for
use with cords can be distinguished by their grooves, which have a circular cross
section, where ones designed for chains have rectangular-shaped grooves.

It is not known where the first watches have been created. Several European towns such
as Blois and Paris in France or Nuremberg and Augsburg in Germany lead the list. The
earliest known examples though are made in Germany. One of the earliest known
creators of watches in portable sizes was Peter Henlein (1479/80 – August 1542). Not
much is known about his life, just that he was free from the locksmiths guilt in 1509. He
became known as a maker of small portable ornamental spring-powered brass clocks,
very rare and expensive, which were fashionable among the nobility of the time. These
were sometimes worn as pendants or attached to clothing, and so may be considered
the first watches, although at over 10cm long they were much bigger than the first true
pocketwatches which appeared about half a century later, and were not able to fit in

There is no watch which can be attributed for sure to Henlein,

but the earliest which is thought to be made by him dates from
about 1515.

As stated above, these early tambour watches were not really

portable. The next generation of watches was smaller in size
and spherical in shape. Although latter versions are thought to
be table clocks their rather small size (40 – 50mm diameter)
would have made it possible to carry them around. These
spherical watches are also thought to come from southern Germany.
— Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA. This watch was commissioned by the great
German reformer and humanist Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).

One such example is the ‘Melanchthon’s watch’ (48mm diameter). This is the earliest
dated watch known. It is engraved on the bottom: “PHIL[IP]. MELA[NCHTHON]. GOTT.
ALEIN. DIE. EHR[E]. 1530” (Philip Melanchthon, to God alone the glory, 1530). There
are very few watches existing today that predate 1550; only two dated examples are
known, this one from 1530 and another from 1548. A single winding kept it running for 12
to 16 hours, and it told time to within the nearest half hour. The perforations in the case
permitted one to see the time without opening the watch. The spherical cases closely
relate to the perfume pomanders which were popular in the first half of the 16th century.
They would have been afforded by only the wealthiest of merchants and royalty
and were worn on a belt along with a sword and dagger.

In future the manufacture of portable watches in Germany will stand behind the ever
growing trade in France, England and Switzerland.

Watch case, Germany, 1550

This fire gilt brass case (diameter: 62.7mm, hight: 24.5mm) was most probably made in
Germany to house a full steel stackfreed movement. The heart shaped openings in the
lid would have permitted to read the time shown by a single, blued steel hand. The hole
in the central part of the lid would have been used for setting the time. There is no
evidence of a bell mount inside the case, so it was most probably a simple watch with no
complications such as alarm. The circular wall of the case is made of one sheet of metal
welded near the hinge. The base of the case is welded and riveted with two pins onto the
wall. The original loop is still present and would have accommodated a chain. The whole
surface is superficially carved with geometric, celtic motives, scrolls and flowers.

Ex private collection (UK).

The shape resembling a drum is taken from the table

clocks which were slightly bigger than the first portable
watches. The dials were highly engraved with
geometric motives and covered a movement made
entirely of iron. The movements of these watches have
mostly the stackfreed or early verge fusee system.
Later the stackfreed will be completely replaced by the
more reliable verge system.
— Iron built, early verge
fusee movement for These new type of watches, ‘Halsuhren’
Tambour watch. (neckwatches) were most probably not worn around
the neck but around the waist as they were extremely

Watch case, Germany, 1580

Fire gilt brass watch case (diameter: 61.5mm, hight 25.4mm). Deeper engraving as older
‘drum’ versions. The hinge more elaborate and ornate, but the biggest change would be
a safety system for the lid.

Ex private collection (UK), sold at Bonhams, Bond Street (2009)

The shape of the watch cases got more rounded

towards the end of the 16th century. The movements
started to get flatter, so the walls of the watches got
more organic in shape. The movements are still made
of steel and can retain the stackfreed system. The
foliot (dumbbell shaped) replaces the balance used in
verge fusee systems. The lid still has the openings to
— British Museum,
show the time and the central hole for setting the
London. Stackfreed
single steel hand. The decoration is still highly
movement used 1550
symmetrical, but naturalistic and organic forms take
– 1580.
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