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The Mechanical Galleon

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1866,1030.1

  • Title (object)

    • The Mechanical Galleon
  • Description

    Automaton in the form of a 'nef' or ship table ornament.

    Gilded brass hull with embossed decoration of the sea with waves and monsters.
    Three masts with yard arms carrying furled cloth sails. At the top of each mast a metal pennant. Wire rigging ropes and waxed thread ratlines.

    On the main deck eight figures each with a sword.
    A small clock is mounted at the base of the main mast, showing hours and minutes on a silver dial with coloured enamel floral motifs
    In the crows' nests of the main mast sailors strike the hours and quarters on inverted bells.
    Beneath the main mast heralds and Electors automatically process before an Emperor seated beneath a canopy with a double-headed eagle of the Holy Roma Empire.
    On the rear deck, two painted figures with swords.
    The bowsprit contains a wheel-lock canon which fired automatically.
    A further ten cannons are arranged around the hull.

    Within the hull, spring-driven clockwork mechanisms operated the automaton figures and provided motion for the machine to run along and also pumped the bellows to provide air for the regal. On the starboard side of the movement a large rotating programme barrel operated the stop on the regal to play the music.

    Wheels originally at the base of the hull have been replaced with ball feet.

    A regal organ with bellows played music as the machine moved along.
    Whilst in motion the tops of the foremast and mizzen mast rotated.
    Originally the base of the movement was stretched with a drum-skin automatically played when the ship was in motion.

    More 

  • Producer name

  • Date

    • 1580-1590
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 104 centimetres
    • Length: 78.5 centimetres
    • Width: 20.3 centimetres (excluding cannons)
  • Curator's comments

    The present state of the nef means that it no longer functions. The eight figures on the main deck are not original, but are cast copies of one original figure on the rear deck. The original figures were trumpeters and drummers. The wheels have been removed and replaced with ball feet.

    For a similar figure, and possibly an original from this nef, see a miniature figure - registration number 1983,0706.1.

    An inventory from the Kunstkammer of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden, describes in detail a nef such this - but it could well have been another example.

    Two other similar mechanical nefs are known to have survived, firstly a silver gilt nef, of different design, formerly belonging to Emperor Rudolf II in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A similar nef to the British Museum example in the Musée de la Renaissance in Écouen, France.Text from 'Clocks', by David Thompson, London, 2004, pp. 52-55.
    Hans Schlottheim
    Automaton clock in the form of a ship or nef
    Augsburg, c. 1585
    Height 104 cm, length 78.5 cm, width 20.3 cm (excluding cannons)
    "A gilded Ship or Nef, skilfully made, with a quarter and full hour striking clock, which is to be wound every 24 hours. Above are three masts, in the crow's nests of which sailors revolve and strike the quarters and hours with hammers on the bells. Inside, the Holy Roman Emperor sits on the imperial throne, and in front of him pass the seven electors with heralds, paying homage as they receive their fiefs. Furthermore ten trumpeters and a kettle drummer alternately announce the banquet. Also a drummer and three guardsmen, and sixteen small cannon, eleven of which may be loaded and fire automatically. With its protective case, it stands on a long green table cloth."

    This description of a ship automaton, recently discovered by John Leopold, former curator of horology at the British Museum, in the inventories of the 'Kunstkammer' of the Elector of Saxony in Dresden, could easily refer to a magnificent 'nef' made by Hans Schlottheim of Augsburg in about 1585, which is now in The British Museum collections. It has a small clock, showing hours and minutes on a beautiful silver dial with coloured enamel floral motifs. Sailors wielding hammers in the crow's nests strike the hours and quarters. However, the machine is not essentially a clock, but a magnificent and ingenious automaton designed to announce a banquet by travelling independently along a table. As it went, a small regal or pipe organ would play a tune and drumsticks would play on a skin stretched across the base of the ship's hull. While all this was going on, the tops of the fore and mizzen masts would twirl round. As part of the entertainment, the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, preceded by three heralds, processed and each made a small bow before the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, seated on a throne beneath a canopy. The ship moved on again accompanied by the music and drumming and as a grand finale to entertain the guests, it fired the main cannon in the bowsprit, which then ignited a fast-burning fuse that burnt quickly round the hull, firing off the other cannons in turn to finish its performance in a wonder of noise and smoke.
    Hans Schlottheim was born some time between 1544 and 1547, the son of a clockmaker from Naumburg in Saxony. From as early as 1567 he lived in Augsburg. Although nothing is known of his apprenticeship, it is recorded that he was a journeyman clockmaker in the workshop of Jeremias Metzger in the 1570s. On 20 December 1573 he married Ursula Geiger, widow of the master locksmith Hans Schitterer. By this marriage he obtained his 'smith's eligibility' or Schmiedegerechtigkeit and was thus able to begin working in his own right within the Augsburg Clockmakers' Guild, where he became a master clockmaker in 1576. In 1586 Schlottheim became a 'guard' within the guild, with responsibility for supervising the quality of the work of the other Augsburg clock makers. It was in 1586 that he was given permission to work for a year at the Imperial Court in Prague. In subsequent years he again left Augsburg to work for the Prince Elector of Saxony in Dresden in 1589 and 1593. Schlottheim died in 1625; his second wife, Euphrosina Osswald, having been described as a widow in the tax registers for 1626.
    Schlottheim is also renowned for a number of other clocks and automata, including in 1577 the first public clock to be installed in Augsburg that struck the hours and quarters. He also made two other nefs; one in the Musée National de la Renaissance in Écouen and one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. As well as these, Schlottheim is known to have made the 'Trumpeter Automaton' in 1582 for Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, who presented it to Archduke Ferdinand of the Tyrol, and which is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A further clock known as the 'Christmas Nativity' automaton, described in the Dresden 'Kunstkammer' inventory of 1 January 1589, was intended for the Ottoman Emperor in about 1584. It was destroyed in 1945 and now only survives as a fragment in the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon in Dresden. In 1588 he created two crayfish in red-painted copper, one of them now also in the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, Dresden. In addition to these, Schlottheim made a trumpeter automaton in 1589 for the Duchess of Graz and in about 1600, a clock with a rolling ball called 'The Tower of Babel' now in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden. Lastly there is 'The Triumph of Bacchus' automaton, which he made in about 1605 and which is also in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

    The British Museum nef was purchased by Octavius Morgan in 1866 and presented to the Museum. In that year he wrote:
    "My dear Franks, I have as you know, lately purchased a wonderful clock in the form of a medieval ship having several automaton figures which move with the clockwork. My intention was to have added it to my collection of ancient clocks down here but the difficulty and trouble of getting it here when cleaned and properly set to right as it requires and especially the great risk of its sustaining injury in the journey and frequent moving have made me determined to offer it as a present to the British Museum, if the Trustees shall be pleased to accept it. For I consider it to be an object of such great curiosity and interest, independently of its being so beautiful a piece of work, and such a fine specimen of the mechanism of the sixteenth century that I really think it is a pity that so fine a thing should be concealed in a private house instead of forming part of a public collection as it would be if received into the British Museum where it would be appreciated . . . Yours very truly, Octavius Morgan."

    Sadly, the years have not been kind to this nef and now none of it functions and nearly all the original figures are missing. Those on the main deck are all copies of an original standing at the edge of the rear deck and many others are no longer present.
    Presented by Octavius Morgan in 1866.

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • Leopold bibliographic details
    • Fritsch 2001 bibliographic details
    • MacGregor 2010 76 bibliographic details
    • Thompson 2004 pp.52-55 bibliographic details
  • Location

    G39/dc5

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:

    2010-2011, London, BM/BBC, 'A History of the World in 100 Objects'

  • Subjects

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1866

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    1866,1030.1

GILT-BRASS NEF CLOCK.
Nef; brass-gilt; masts and rigging; sides embossed with waves and sea-monsters; figures on deck, emperor seated with courtiers; clock below Imperial double-headed eagle.

GILT-BRASS NEF CLOCK. Nef; brass-gilt; masts and rigging; sides embossed with waves and sea-monsters; figures on deck, emperor seated with courtiers; clock below Imperial double-headed eagle.

Image description

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