Cultural Perspectives • 02 Aug 2018
1 in 200 – Horological Legend Henry B. Fried
With news of the Horological Society of New York coming to Singapore (for the first time!) as part of their travelling education series; now is as good a time as ever to talk about one of the true modern champions of horology, Henry Beryl Fried.
One of the most influential individuals who had taken up Presidency of the Horological Society of New York, Henry was the son of a Polish watchmaker (himself a second generation watchmaker), who migrated to the United States in 1886. Funnily enough Henry’s dad initially setup a little space in a barbershop to work on watches. With a steady flow of male clientele, he’d busy himself with repairing pocket watches carried in the breast pockets of the gentleman getting their hair cut. But with hair flying around the shop (not exactly the best conditions to repair watches), he eventually decided to open up his own shop. Henry, born on the 8th of January 1907, learnt many of the fundamentals from his father, with the brothers starting their education by cleaning alarm clocks and cuckoo clocks. The middle of six sons, upon the sudden death of his father to an infectious disease, his older brothers pulled him out of school and put him to work running errands in Manhattan, working in a watch shop not to far from their own store. Little by little his knowledge increased. He was positively obsessed, and had an insatiable appetite for learning anything related to horology, “there wasn’t a night that I couldn’t wait till I woke up in the morning to see what was gonna be on my table, a watch on my table. I used to dream watches”.
Despite working from a young age, he always managed to find time for many other varied pursuits and hobbies. A true renaissance man, he loved playing basketball, golf, was a state champion bicycle racer, winning athlete (winning his first cross country race he participated in), enjoyed opera and classical music
Despite his deep and never ending curiosity for clocks, watches and horological culture; he is – as is Richard Feynman – just as well known for the clarity and accuracy of his language in educating others. Just as physicist Richard Feynman is known as the ‘great explainer’, Henry ought to be remembered as one of (if not the best) explainers of horological culture. The current state of the watch collecting community, with its forums, GTG’s and lectures is due in part to his enduring influence. Collectors of all ages can appreciate his motivation to share his passion. He liked watches and wanted to share that with you.
Aside from his Presidency of the Horological Society of New York, Henry was a consultant for Random House, President of the old Horological Institute of America and was the first American awarded the Silver Star Medal of the British Horological Institute. He wrote 14 books on horology, alongside hundreds of articles and pamphlets, including the popular The Watch Repairers Manual. Writing under the assumption of an audience new to horology, The Watch Repairers Manual offers a comprehensive and approachable introduction to the components of a wristwatch, including how to clean and service each part. Writing as well as drawing, he was a brilliant artist, drawing most of the technical drawings found in his books.
His teaching career began during the Great Depression when selected amidst a pool of 200 applicants to become the first teacher of watch and clock making at the George Westinghouse Vocational and Technical High School in 1938, a position he would hold for over three decades. Throughout his teaching career his personal collection continued to expand, encompassing water clocks, sundials, grandfather clocks and countless wristwatches. His private library, one of the most comprehensive out there, was donated to the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. Their library was subsequently named the Henry B. Fried Library in his honour.
His enthusiasm for watches wasn’t dampened by the tumultuous times of the 70’s, in fact he went on to write the first book on repairing quartz watches. Despite this he accurately predicted a return to form for the market, and in his mind nothing could compare to the beauty of a mechanical watch ticking away on the wrist, “People want to see the art of the mechanics,” he said. “They want to see that the watch has a heart, a soul. They want to hear it tick.”
The current enthusiasm for watch collecting is due in part to his influence on the horological world. He was an exceptionally humble watchmaker, teacher, collector and family man. He’d always say “Call me Henry, never Mr. Fried”.