Mechanical Splendours

The Mechanical Galleon, 1585

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This astonishing mechanical galleon is a marvel of craftsmanship and engineering. It is a ‘nef’ – an extravagant metal table ornament in the shape of a ship.

The galleon was made by Hans Schlottheim (1544 – 1625) who produced many mechanical automata for the princes who collected such things:

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.

The figures on the deck are the Holy Roman Emperor and the Seven Electors, the Dukes and Bishops who chose the emperor. When the galleon was made the Holy Roman Emperor was the Hapsburg Rudolf II, and the galleon was an allusion to the Spanish treasure fleets that enriched the Hapsburg family.

The mechanical galleon is an inspired choice because it combines two of the key technologies of the Renaissance: sailing ships and the mechanical clock. It was the ships that made the age of world empires possible, that united the old world with the new, and that launched the modern economy. The caravels, fluyts, galleons and barques were not the first ocean-going ships nor even necessarily the best of their time, but they were good enough and they could be built at reasonable cost, so in their thousands they made Europe the center of a newly united world. It is hard to see how the modern world could have come about without the ships and the skill and daring of the men who sailed them across the stormy oceans.

The effects of the mechanical clock are more subtle but equally profound. These clocks changed our understanding of time and therefore the way we work and live. They created a class of craftsmen who made mechanical objects for a living, and who could then turn their skills to making everything from improved guns to mechanical looms. They launched a fad for ingenuity and invention that, as much as anything else, defines the modern age: other cultures have mostly been satisfied to do things in the old way, but we are constantly looking for some way to do better, or just for some entertaining novelty.

Ours is the global age, the mechanical age, the age of change for its own sake, and this object wonderfully represents all of those things. The further information here and there.

Automaton of a Ship, British Museum, London

Source 1, Source 2, Source 3.

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