Regiomontanus’ Pocketwatch


from the collection of the Germanische National Museum, Nürnberg, Germany

Visitors to the Germanische Museum in Nürnberg, Germany will find a whole section devoted to astronomical instruments. Among these treasures is the pocket sundial that Johannes Müller, better known by the latinized name appelation of his birthtown, Königsberg – Regiomontanus.

Regiomontanus moved to Nürnberg in 1471, at that time Nürnberg was a major printing centre as well as renown for its excellent craftsmen. He opened his own printing press so that his astronomical tables would be printed in the best of quality. He also engaged craftsmen to make astronomical instruments for him. This is one of them. It is a pocket sundial with a built in compass used for traveling.

This is a finely crafted instrument and some may wonder why two monkeys in a tree are represented. Monkeys were not looked upon favorably. In the middle ages they were symbols of uncontrolled behaviour. (We still have the three monkeys who hold their hands over their eyes, ears and mouths respectively!) I don’t think that this is the case here. They are holding one end of the missing gnomon. They are holding the end of that which casts the shadow on the face of the clock. It is the shadow cast that is used to tell time. The sundial embodies an instrument that abstracts time. Reduces it. And so I think the intention is to show that just as monkeys are an imitation of man, so a clock is an imitation of time. The movement of the Sun is reduced to a shadow. This is of course conjecture but it is plausible!

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