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Mechanical Galleon

Mechanical Galleon - British Museum - Joy of Museums

Mechanical Galleon

This Mechanical Galleon is an elaborate ornament in the form of a ship, which is also a self-operating machine with moving figures, music and a clock. It was constructed in 1585 by Hans Schlottheim, a goldsmith and clockmaker active in Augsburg, Germany. The Mechanical Galleon was made under the patronage of Augustus I, Elector of Saxony in Dresden who competed with other rulers in Europe to own elaborate art objects that demonstrated their wealth and prestige.

This extravagant ornament is called a “nef” which is a table ornament and container used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, made of precious metals in the shape of a ship. Nefs were extravagant ship-shaped table ornaments in precious metal that had been popular among the wealthy.

This particular piece is mostly made of gilded brass and incorporates the recent development of coiled tempered steel that made this automaton possible. Clockwork was new and would have been regarded as a modern wonder in the sixteenth century. The complexity and sophistication of the automation in this nef meant that Hans Schlottheim had to include three separate clockwork mechanisms.

There is a tiny clock on the ship, and mechanical music played accompanied by a drum on a skin hidden within the hull. Seven figures of electors parade before the seated figure of the Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. It was used to entertain guest during a banquet, and the ship would make noises, and smoke as the cannons fired, and trumpets blared.


  • Rulers competed with each other by commissioning magnificent objects to demonstrate their wealth and power. How is wealth and power manifested nowadays?
  • The discovery of coiled tempered steel enabled a machine which performs a range of functions. Did this competition for elaborate ornaments spur innovation and invention?


Mechanical Galleon

  • Title:                 Mechanical Galleon
  • Created:        1585
  • Made in:         Augsburg, Swabia, Bavaria
  • Materials:      Gilt brass, steel and other materials
  • Dimensions: 78.5cm long and 104 cm high
  • Museum:        The British Museum


“Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
–  Proverb


Photo Credit: 1)JOM