Henry R. Playtner (1865-1943)
Henry Richard Ploethner was one of eight children born to August Ploethner, a Preston, Ontario weaver, and his wife Martha (Heise) Ploethner. Although his parents and siblings retained the German spelling of their surname throughout their lives, in 1889 Henry changed his to the more anglicized version of "Playtner". The pronunciation is the same.
At the age of 15, Henry became an apprentice to Edward Fox, a well-known Kincardine jeweller. Following completion of his tenure with Fox, he moved to Toronto where he worked for a series of employers, all for relatively short periods of time. It is unknown why he changed jobs so frequently (some have suggested his "exacting" personality may have been difficult to deal with) but one thing is certain - it was not from inferior work skills.
One employer, J.P. Mill, not only gave him a letter of recommendation in which he mentioned Playtner's ability as a "first-class watchmaker" but in later years praised his teaching skills when giving a critique of a student's completed masterpiece watch.
It was while working for Kent Brothers that Playtner met Edward Beeton and the two established a solid working relationship and a good personal rapport. So, when Beeton agreed to set up a horological training school, he wanted Playtner to be involved. Little would anyone have guessed that a few months later Beeton would become disassociated with the school, thus leaving Playtner in charge.
A "hands on" teacher, Henry paid close attention to his students' progress and was readily available to give advice. If he felt a particular individual wasn't suited to the field of watchmaking, he quickly told them so as not to waste their time and money. Fluent in both English and German, he offered both languages at the school. All illustrations and lectures were given in English, however, bench or technical drawing instructions were given in either language.
Being a student under Playtner's direction could not have been easy. His standards were so stringent that only about 50 individuals produced watches, about 10 percent of his estimated 500 students.
We teach horology and have no time to waste on anything outside of it."
His standards were equally stringent with student behaviour. A strict man who tolerated very little in the way of frivolity, Playtner set down very strict and inflexible rules and students were expected to adhere to them. Roll call was taken at 8:30 every morning and each quarter he would issue a report to the students' parents advising them of their sons' punctuality and overall behaviour. He insisted that the classroom be kept tidy at all times. Tobacco and disturbing noises were forbidden. Students were not allowed to leave the school between 8:30 and 5:45, except for lunch, and if an absence became necessary, special permission had to be first be granted by management. If an individual was seen to be "playing pranks" instead of working or studying, he was given one warning and then dismissed. Several students lost their privilege to study at the school this way. Playtner was once quoted as saying, "Young men are expected to work and study to the best of their ability, not to play. We teach horology and have no time to waste on anything outside of it."
Yet despite his seemingly austere personality, most of his students liked and respected him, and years later many gave their endorsement to both his teaching skills and the school. Perhaps it was Jerry Smith, a graduate of the 1899 class, who best summed up his days at the CHI when he was quoted in a Toronto Evening Telegram article, "…there I found myself under the guidance of a master mechanic in the person of H.R. Playtner, the greatest horologist of all time."
Playtner's brilliance in the field of horology is unquestioned and his success with the CHI is well recognized and documented. In the 23 years the school was open, he educated an estimated 500 students and many of these students kept in touch with him after graduation. One former student went so far as to offer a scholarship for some deserving individual to attend the school because he believed in Playtner's high standards and thorough training.
Educating watchmakers is not the only thing for which Playtner will be remembered. In 1894, he delivered a lecture to the Canadian Watchmakers' and Retail Jewellers' Association of Canada entitled "An Analysis of the Lever Escapement". It was published as a series of articles in the "American Jeweler" and subsequently turned into a hard cover book which is still in print today. This is a classic piece of technical literature, one of the most comprehensive books available on the escapement.lever.
After the CHI closed in 1913, Platyner continued to live in Toronto but ultimately returned home to Preston in 1916. But he did not stay long. In 1920, The Elgin School of Watchmaking in Elgin, Illinois enticed him into the position of President of the new school. Despite the title, Playtner was not truly in charge, and in fact, was subordinate to two other school officials. He nevertheless accepted their offer and set about developing a course curriculum very similar to that of the CHI, but incorporating some of the changes suggested by the Elgin officials.
The association unfortunately did not pan out. Reasons were never made public, but by June of 1923, Playtner and his superiors were at odds and terms outlining Playtner's resignation were drawn up. In the final analysis, Playtner was afforded the courtesy of retaining the title of "President Emeritus" but it was made clear that school officials expected to sever the ties. Playtner tendered his resignation on August 1st and returned home to Canada where he purchased a small home in Kitchener.
In later years Playtner developed severe diabetes and a nephew moved in to care for him. He died in his home of a stroke on September 20, 1943 at the age of
78. He is buried in the Old Preston cemetery (Cambridge) alongside members of his family.