Hans Schlottheim

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.
B. F. Skinner

Bell Tower Automaton of Schlottheim (1580)
Bell Tower Automaton of Schlottheim (1580)

Starting from 1580, Hans Schlottheim, a German goldsmith, watchmaker, craftsman, and above all a mechanic, working in Augsburg, created quite a few wonderful automata, several of which managed to survive to our time. Schlottheim’s automata had been known to feature vignette scenes populated by animated figurines, music-producing mechanisms, hourly chimes, and firing miniature cannons, in addition to mechanisms that displayed the time.

It is known, that thanks mainly to Schlottheim’s efforts, who was Augsburg’s leading clock- and automaton-maker at the turn of the 16th century, Augsburg became the center for the production of intricate jukeboxes and clocks, which were ordered by representatives of the European aristocracy for their collections. For some parts of his automata, Schlottheim used the service of his fellow craftsmen, like Egidius Lobenigk (a court turner to the Electors of Saxony), the gem cutter and goldsmith Valentin Drausch (1550-1600), and goldsmith Sylvester II Eberlin.

Known for us automata of Schlottheim are the Bell Tower Automaton (1580), the Trumpeter (1582), Christmas Grib (1585), three Mechanical Galleons Automata (built between 1585 and 1590), Crayfish Automaton (1588), Triumph of Bacchus (1602), and several figure automaton clocks, created from the 1580s until 1600s.

The Bell Tower Automaton (Glockenturmautomat), made by Schlottheim around 1580 (see the nearby image), kept now at the Kunstkammer of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, refers to a performance by a group of actors that Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, personally witnessed in Venice in 1579. His nephew, Duke Ferdinand of Bavaria, later gave him the tower as a gift, whose figures take up the rough and drastic scenes of the performances. The dimensions of the automaton are—height 110.8 cm, base 24.7/20.5 cm. The materials used are bronze, fire-gilded, figures partially clothed, painted glass, metal, and wood.

Trumpeter Automaton of Schlottheim (1582)
Trumpeter Automaton of Schlottheim (1582)

The bell tower rests on four sphinxes and has five tiers, not counting the base with a door in the center (the final surprise is hidden behind it). On the two lower tiers there are celebrating companies, on the two upper tiers there are bells that ring during the performance. One of the figures stretches out her bare buttocks towards the viewer through a door that opens when the song is played.

In 1582 Schlottheim, together with the goldsmith Valentin Drausch, built the Trumpeter Automaton (see the nearby image), also kept now at the Kunstkammer of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien). The automaton has the form of a low tower, with dimensions—height of 33.4 cm, and a base of 36/23.5 cm. The materials used are ebony, palisander wood, gilded silver, enamel, gilded brass, and iron. Inside is the ingenious clockwork for the musical mechanism and the movements of the drummers and trumpeters, with a 10-note automatic shelf and a drum membrane with two mallets stretched over the case back. A preambulum and a main piece are set on the wheel-shaped information carrier and the figures on the two floors of the structure move to the music (ten trumpeters and a drummer).

Galleon Automaton of Schlottheim, British Museum in London (1585-1590)
Galleon Automaton of Schlottheim, British Museum in London (1585-1590)

Schlottheim is known today almost exclusively for three clockwork ships (galleons) that he built between 1585 and 1590. These three mechanical marvels survive and can be seen in the Musée de la Renaissance in Écouen, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and in the British Museum in London. The Viena device is a smaller, less complex, and presumably earlier mechanical galleon than the two now in Lodon and Écouen, which are very similar in design and movement. They represent that staple of European navies in the late 16th century, the galleon, a ship built for both exploration and warfare. Such a table-top ship is usually called a nef, after the French word for a galleon.

The British Museum model (see the nearby image), with dimensions: height 104 cm, length 78.5 cm; width 20.3 cm, was intended to sit on a royal table. It is filled with clockwork driven by coiled springs that would have been wound daily. The ship originally had 4 wheels, and one clockwork motor would trundle it down the high table. Another clockwork provided the time (there is a clock face on the lower main mast of the ship) and also powered two sailors in the crow’s nests of the main mast who rang the hours and quarter hours on tiny bells. On the quarterdeck at the stern sat the Holy Roman Emperor, and as the ship moved along, the 7 Imperial electors glided past him and bowed when they came in front of His Majesty, who at the time would have been Rudolf II (reigned 1576-1612).

Meanwhile, on the main deck, there were seven trumpeters and a drummer who played music, while inside the ship a small mechanical organ, the bellows of which was driven by yet another clockwork motor, contributed its share to the festivities (and a taut membrane on the ship’s bottom provided the drumming surface for some mechanical hammers). When the ship reached the end of its table-top journey, the fore cannon on the bowsprit fired and ignited another ten small canons arranged around the ship, all of which were fully operational. The cannon explosions and a musical crescendo might have marked the summons to the feast, or perhaps a thunderous conclusion.

Biography of Hans Schlottheim

Hans (Hanns) Schlottheim (also spelled “Schlotheim” or “Schlotthammer”) was born circa 1546 in Naumburg, a small town on the Saale River in Saxony, Central Germany. He was the son of a local watchmaker and in his early to mid-twenties, between 1567 and 1573, he left his father’s workshop and moved to the Free Imperial City of Augsburg. In Augsburg, he worked in the workshop of the famous German clockmaker Jeremias Metzger (1527-1599). In 1573 Schlottheim received Schmiedegerechtigkeit (right to forge, a privilege of blacksmith), which allowed him to work on his own account within the guild of Augsburg watchmakers. In 1576 he presented his Meisterwerk (masterpiece) to the jury of master inspectors and was awarded the title of Meister (master). In 1577 Schlottheim installed a large clock on the facade of his house. He bought a second house in Schmiedegasse in 1579, which became known as the watchmaking center of the empire and a mark of its success. In 1586 Schlottheim became the head of the guild, responsible for overseeing the quality of the work of other clockmakers in Augsburg.

Emperor Rudolf II’s visit to Augsburg in 1582 to attend the Diet must have played a crucial role in Schlottheim’s career. In 1586 he received permission to work for three years at the imperial court in Prague, then from 1589 until 1593 worked with the Elector of Saxony in Dresden. During his stay in Prague, he had to build at least two mechanical galleons for Rudolf II. Throughout his career, Schlottheim knew how to respond to the tastes of royal and princely dishes, as well as the wealthy bourgeoisie for automated machines and watchmaking automatons presented as the centerpieces of banquets and receptions.

On 15 December 1573, Schlottheim married Ursula Geiger, widow of the master locksmith Hans Schitterer. The marriage to Geiger presumably afforded Schlottheim social and occupational advancement, as the tools of a clockmaker and a locksmith in the late sixteenth century were by and large the same. In the sixteenth century, the clockmakers were subsumed under the general guild of smiths, which included painters, saddlers, and goldsmiths.

Hans Schlottheim died circa 1625 in Augsburg.