The mechanical galleon

Augsburg, South Germany, around AD 1585

An automated clock in the form of a 'nef', or galleon, made by Hans Schlottheim.

There was a great fascination for automated machines at the end of the sixteenth century, particularly at the courts of Rudolf II in Prague and Süleyman 'the Magnificent' in Constantinople. Hans Schlottheim of Augsburg (1545-1625) was one of the most famous makers of these machines.

This gilt-copper and steel automaton was designed to trundle along a grand table to announce a banquet. It takes the form of a nef, or medieval galleon, with sailors wielding hammers to strike the hours and quarters on bells in the crows nests. It also shows the time on a dial at the bottom of the main mast. Music is played on a small regal organ and a drum skin stretched over the base of the hull. The Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, led by heralds, process before their Emperor seated on a throne beneath the main mast. As a grand finale, it fires its cannons to produce a wonder of noise and smoke to entertain the guests.

Although for many years, this clock was said to have belonged to Emperor Rudolf II himself, it is now thought that it might be the one described in an inventory of the Kunstkammer of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden in about 1585.

Today, the clock is not quite in its original state. In the nineteenth century, missing main deck figures were replaced with copies made from existing original figures.

Related products


A History of the World in 100 objects

By Neil MacGregor

Accompanies the BBC Radio 4 series

Object details

Height: 104 cm
Width: 78.5 cm
Depth: 20.3cm


M&ME 1866,10-30,1

Room 38-39: Clocks and Watches


    Gift of Octavius Morgan, MP


    J.J. Haspels, Automatic musical instruments, (Nirota, Muziekdruk C.V., Koedijk, 1987)

    J. Fritsch (ed.), Ships of curiosity: three Renaissance Automata (Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2001)

    D. Roberts, Mystery, novelty and fantasy clocks (Atglen Pa., Schiffer Publishing, 1999)

    H. Tait, Clocks and watches (London, The British Museum Press, 1983)

    D. Thompson, Clocks (London, The British Museum Press, 2004)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    S.A. Bedini, ‘The role of Automata in the History of Technology’, Technology and Culture, 5 (1964), 24–42

    R.J.W. Evans, Rudolf II and his World: A Study in Intellectual History 1576-1612 (Oxford, 1973)

    B.I. Moran, ‘German Prince-practitioners: Aspects in the Development of Courtly Science, Technology and Procedures in the Renaissance’, Technology and Culture, 22 (1981), 253–274.

    J. Wolfe, Humanism, Machinery and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge, 2004)

    H. Watanabe-O’Kelly, Court Culture in Dresden: From Renaissance to Baroque (Palgrave, 2002)