The mahout (elephant keeper), the turbaned Ottoman warriors, and the crowning crescent all allude to the Eastern origins of the elephant. Within the Kunstkammer the elephant represented rulership. This automaton clock, which strikes at both the quarter hour and the hour, is driven by a movement connected to a wheel mounted on the walkway of the howdah (saddle). On the hour, the four Muslim warriors revolve around the brickwork tower. The mahout thumps his arm up and down, as though he were leading the animal, and his counterweighted eyes move back and forth as the machine travels.
Presented to Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna in 1760, this automaton was made at the height of the “century of writing.” Written communication connected scientists, dignitaries, scholars, and artists across long distances, and the act of writing was celebrated in every form. This piece is the last in a series of increasingly complicated ones that Friedrich von Knaus produced during his tenure as Austrian court machinist; he presented other examples to dignitaries such as the French king Louis XV and Duke Charles Alexander of Lorraine.
The machine writes through the hand of the small statuette seated at its top, one of the first mechanical writing figures in human form. This video shows the mechanisms inside the sphere that produce its precise movements. Up to 107 words can be preprogrammed by the arrangement of pegs on a barrel. The figure can also be set via a hand-worked control to appear to write from dictation; this technology that presaged the first typewriter.
Duke Charles Alexander of Lorraine, who bought this automaton clock in 1777, collected luxury objects made in his realm that demonstrated local technical advances. The self-moving components of this timepiece represent the height of Flemish invention in a fashionable Neoclassical style. Mechanically complex and visually impressive, this sparkling clock was a worthy addition to the duke’s collection of timepieces and scientific instruments.
This video shows the movement of the dials for hours, minutes, and seconds; days of the month; and phases of the moon, as well as that of the seven dynamic design elements. The cross-of-Lorraine pendulum swings steadily over the main dial, underneath a dancing letter M. Above the calendar dial turns a Catherine wheel, while the four dragons supporting the obelisk flap their wings and spit pearls. Another Catherine wheel spins above the moon-phase dial, and the entire obelisk is topped by a rotating planetarium. The fourth dial shows the maker’s signature.