Martín Altman, clockmaker and engineer to the Habsburgs, by Víctor Pérez Álvarez

Born in Silesia in 1530, son of a clockmaker, Martin Altman left his father’s home aged 16 to fight in the Schmalkaldik wars of Emperor Charles V against the Lutherans. After living in different cities for short periods he ended up in Augsburg, a hive of artisanal activity and one of the most important clockmaking centres in Europe. We don’t know whether he moved to Augsburg by chance or driven by his interest in learning horology in the best possible place, but that move determined his future. After the 1555 Imperial Diet (the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire) he was appointed by the Emperor Charles V and moved to Brussels to join his court, where he spent a few years. During that period he visited England briefly, probably with King Philip II of Spain, then married to Queen Mary Tudor. After the queen’s death in November 1558, Philip II moved back to Spain with his court (including Martin Altman), settling in Toledo.

A clock that may be attributable to Martin Altman. H. M. VEHMEYER: Clocks, their origin and development. 1320-1880. Vol. I, Gent, Snoeck, 2004, p. 782. Photo credit: Henk Stam

As Michael Palin would say: ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ Neither did Altman, who was suddenly arrested and charged with Lutheranism only one year after arriving in Spain. He was released without charge on that occasion, but was arrested again a few years later and his hand was injured in a torture session. Altman survived, but this was a turning point in his life. He started to suffer economic difficulties and needed to borrow money to pay his living costs on several occasions. In addition to this, the king owed him a huge amount of money. By the end of the 1580s, Altman’s situation was unsustainable and in 1591 he decided to sell his workshop in Madrid and, following an offer from the Venetian ambassador, travelled to Italy.

Altman was a clockmaker: he made, serviced and traded clocks, watches and other instruments. He was in charge of the clocks and scientific instruments collections of Philip II, and had access to the private rooms of the King. He was also an engineer and presented various different inventions to the king, including a diving suit to recover valuables from shipwrecks and different types of bullets.

Altman, barely known until recent years, is a good example of a Renaissance clockmaker-engineer who dealt with some of the most influential people of his time.

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