The mechanical galleon

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This mechanical galleon is in fact an elaborate, automated clock. Its mechanism no longer works but originally it would have played music, fired its cannons and trundled across the table at imperial banquets. Clocks like this were important status symbols in the courts of Europe in the 1500s and this clock is based on the great European ships that sailed the oceans during this period. It is unlikely that the clock's creator, Hans Schlottheim in inland Germany, ever saw an actual galleon.

Who is the figure in the throne?

The Holy Roman Emperor is the central figure on this galleon. He is surrounded by seven noblemen known as the Electors, who were responsible for selecting the emperor. When the galleon was made the Holy Roman Emperor was Rudolf II, a member of the powerful Hapsburg family. A galleon was an appropriate symbol for the emperor's power as much of the Hapsburgs' wealth came from silver brought back from the Americas. Mechanical automata were often used as diplomatic gifts and the Hapsburgs gave clocks to the Turkish sultan to maintain peaceful relationships throughout the 1500s.

The maker of this galleon also made two mechanical crayfish that moved, one of which still exists today in Dresden

The space shuttle of its day

It’s hard for us to remember that until you can measure time accurately you can’t travel safely. It has to do with, of course, finding your position using navigational instruments, but let’s just leave it at that. You cannot move around the globe safely until you have a clock as well as a compass and the two together are what opens up the globe to European navigators. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the English in the middle to late sixteenth century, so that by the 1580s when England is awaiting the arrival of the Spanish Armada, huge ships moving in every direction across the seas are the sign of global domination; they are the beginnings of Imperialism.

Let me put it this way, if you are on a ship and you leave the port of Bristol and you want to head west wards, you have to hug a coast line if you are to sail in safety, or at least only move out to the sea to a distance from which you can see the coast line, unless you have technological navigational instruments. You can only enter into open sea, in other words, move towards America , go round the cape to the spice islands, if you have accurate clocks, measuring instruments, depth finding instruments and compasses.

One reason why technology moves forward so fast in the sixteenth century is that it becomes extremely fashionable; the rich, the wealthy of all kinds, the aristocracy, everybody wants to own a bit of technology, something with cogs and wheels and winding bits, a clock, a very ornamental clock, or a very ornamental position finding instrument, jewelled, gilded, they survive and you can see them in our museums. It was fashionable to own scientific instruments because they were the means of expansion, discovery: fortune making. It was the instruments that allowed people to sail out to new lands and speculate in what they found there, so I think that technology and speculation go together, technology and greed, and expansionism and imperialism and speculation go together.

The consequence of this greedy approach, that I think is to some extent sponsored by new technology, is a spiritual hesitation about whether mankind is really allowed to do this. So you get two sides of the coin, you get the exuberant expansion, getting and grabbing and invading and pillaging and bringing back gold and coffee and spices and so on. You also get quite a lot of endowing, of convents and monasteries and so on across Europe with that wealth because the wealthy feel that there has to be some antidote to that.

Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies, Queen Mary, University of London

How does it work?

Hans Schlottheim, the Augsburg clockmaker (about 1544 - 1625) was the ingenious creator of a number of sophisticated automata, including the ‘Trumpeter’ made for Wilhelm V Duke of Bavaria, the ‘Tower of Babel’ and the amazing pair of moving crayfish, one of which survives in the Mathmatisch-Physikalischer Salon in Dresden.

He perhaps excelled himself with the creation of a series of automated ‘nefs’ or medieval galleons. Of the three that survive, one is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one in the Musée de la Renaissance in Écouen, and this one has been in the British Museum since 1866.

The British Museum nef has three separate, spring-driven clockwork mechanisms. One to drive the ship along the table, one is a quarter-striking clock which also operates the procession of Electors, and the third mechanism plays an organ and operates a drumming mechanism.

The nef is designed to run along a table to announce the banquet. It comes from an era when such automated machines were the height of fashion in the royal courts of Rudolf II in the Holy Roman Empire and of Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa and the Middle East.

In static use, the nef has a clock furnished with an elaborately enamelled silver dial with two hands to show the hours and quarters. In the crows’ nests of the main mast, two sailors strike the hours and quarters and the clock also activates the procession of Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, each wearing the scarlet and ermine robe of office and carrying his insignia. Preceded by three heralds clothed in tabards sporting the double-headed eagle, the Electors each turn and bow as they pass the Emperor seated on the throne beneath a canopy at the front of the rear deck.

In performance, the nef would trundle along the table on wheels mounted eccentrically on their axles to give it a pitching motion. As it moved, the miniature organ (regal) played a trumpet tune and there would have been drumming on a drum-skin stretched across the base of the hull. On the main deck there were trumpeters and drummers who moved in time to the music (sadly these have been removed and replaced with figures copied from an original from the rear deck).

As the machine came to the end of its performance the wheel-lock cannon in the bowsprit was automatically fired and this in turn lit a fuse which burned around the hull igniting the other cannons producing loud bangs and much smoke.

Such a spectacular piece would have been the envy of all those illustrious guests invited to a grand banquet hosted by an Elector. It was a wildly expensive entertainment, a rich and lavish display of wealth, and a magical experience for all this who witnessed its performance.

As it was in the 1580s, this wonderful machine is still an object which fascinates us today.

David Thompson, curator, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 16:20 on 20 September 2010, Victuallers wrote:

    Another brilliant episode. A picture of its owner can be found [,_Elector_of_Saxony here].

    I wonder if the 100th object will be virtual or digital?

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  • 2. At 19:59 on 20 September 2010, richard_smithson wrote:

    i just wanted to say how special the series has been and totally captured my imagination so well thought through and has open my eyes to the treads which run right through history link us to so many places and people, thankyou

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  • 3. At 20:19 on 20 September 2010, witz-end wrote:

    Another excellent episode and commentary - context and historical significance conveyed particularly well. Very much appreciate the fact that a transcript is provided so it's possible to revisit and absorb the information provided, and also good to have the additional information provided by Lisa Jardine and David Thompson. This series is outstanding.

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  • 4. At 21:34 on 20 September 2010, WarrenCowell wrote:

    During the preview to this episode earlier this mornibg, the presenter also referred to silver 'pieces of eight' coins. Is this the subject of a future episode? This was my impression. Thanks,

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  • 5. At 23:10 on 21 September 2010, revjennifer wrote:

    This whole series has been an inspiration opening new vistas of understanding by seeing things in their historial context. I am deeply grateful to everyone who has had a hand in producing this masterpiece.

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  • 6. At 08:51 on 23 September 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    You are correct - silver pieces of eight coins are the subject of the programme on 24 September. You can find out more here:
    David Prudames, British Museum

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  • 7. At 17:14 on 14 October 2010, Scott I wrote:

    Historian Lisa Jardine declares that clockwork is magic in the sixteenth century. But, I think computer technology is a better metaphor. Magic can evoke myths and mythic feats of the past: things disappearing, the dead being raised. And magic works by deception and slight of hand. Clockwork does neither. A person of the early Renaissance beholding a clock for the first time probably saw the promise of the future--even if at the same time the object's function spoke also to mortality and memories of time past. Also, it's clear from the description written about the object in the 1500's that the writer is not baffled by the object, which is understood to be mechanical, but the writer does not delve into the details of the mechanisms. Today, we understand computers to work according to electricity and circuits, but most of us don't know the particulars. Also like clockwork, computer technology can serve both entertainment and utilitarian purposes. Like clockwork, the best computer technology is the most expensive and is more likely to have an urban setting than a rural one.

    The people watching the galleon moving along the banquet table of Augustus I of Saxony were not mystified ignoramuses. They may have been amazed and delighted, but probably not afraid. If anything, they would have been more fearful--and rightly so--of the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor that this clockwork masterpiece was meant to dynamically represent. In that way, magic and computer technology do have something in common: both can be used to serve political purposes, too.

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Made in Augsburg, Germany


AD 1585


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