The Automaton Ship and Silver Shagreen Case
I received by post a small metal tobacco tin containing a petite mechanized ship. No information was provided regarding its history, except that it was acquired from a dealer in Portobello Market, London. Strangely enough, no one has ever seen anything like it—this includes all the specialists you might know.
As one can imagine, far more work lay ahead than I had anticipated.
The object is an early 19th century miniature musical automaton movement that controls a nautical scene. The scene features a gilt lighthouse set on cliffs of green and brown painted wood. A gilded ship sits on a painted sea in front of the cliffs. The ship rocks to and fro as though in a storm while a (then unidentified) tune plays on a plucked comb.
The ship resembles a Man-o-War or Galleon, much like Nef automata in design. This might suggest the object is of European or English make.
The mechanism can be dated by the music component, made between 1810 and 1815. This early type of mechanism soon went out of use, as the flat disc and individual tooth comb arrangement used in pocket watches is mechanically and aurally superior.
As this object has no living friends or relatives, the design and construction of a case could not be guided by other examples. After discussions with the owner, silversmith John Norgate, and my tutor Matthew Read, a case was designed to suit the period during which the object was made and the needs of the owner. It would be made of silver, a size and shape comfortable for one’s pocket.
Restoring the mechanism to working order was by far the most challenging aspect of the project.
The movement has four cylindrical pinned pillars and rectangular brass plates that enclose a five-component train, governed by a fly and worm gear.
|Train Count||Teeth||Pinion Leaves|
|Second Intermediate Wheel||40||10|
Recesses for gear train and oil sinks are reminiscent of those seen in watch manufacture. There is a series of plugged and empty holes, indicating that the plates may have been adapted from an earlier purpose, or perhaps that things were moved.
There were many faults in the mechanism, most of which were in the musical barrel.
The mainspring was slipping inside the barrel, and the hook had to be filed away underneath to provide a surface on which the eye could catch. The barrel cap and body, as well as the top and bottom barrel main plate bearings, were worn, making the barrel run out of true. This caused a misalignment between the music pins on the barrel and the teeth of the comb. Tolerances for the barrel, due to the position of the pins in relation to the comb, are very fine. After the barrel and bearings were bushed, the position of the comb had not improved enough for the pins to run in line with the comb teeth. The comb did not sit flat, but at an angle. Minimal material was removed from the base by filing it flat and a brass spacer was made to raise the comb teeth level with the pins.
Further problems with the musical component included the fact that the comb had lost its resonance due to two teeth touching at the base. The resonance was restored, but the comb remained silent when plucked by the barrel. This could have been the result of numerous factors such as the angle at which the pins on the barrel engaged the comb, or the shape and height of the pins. A test barrel was made with different types of pins, varying in height, angle, and shape.
When the test barrel was placed into the mechanism, a set of long, flat-topped pins played most clearly and resonantly by comparison with others that were tested. In light of this, repinning the barrel was considered, but the risk seemed too high to justify the procedure, and plans to make a new barrel developed. A music map of the tune was prepared and, entering the map into a music-making programme along with the specific tones of the comb, the tune on the barrel was revealed to be “God Save the King.” The mechanism was made during the reign of George III, so a version of the tune from that period was necessary for verification. As each monarch came to power small variations in the melody were made, such as an added harmonic note, or a momentary tempo change. A copy of an original 1810 manuscript of the song from the British Library was obtained and the tune and date of make were confirmed. In an effort to preserve the original barrel and restore it to working order, each pin profile was filed with an angled relief, just the same as the pins made for the test barrel.
This was successful and a faint tune was finally achieved from the barrel. Thus, it was left intact and a new barrel was not made. After replacing a missing pin on the barrel, the tune was fully restored.
After other issues in the mechanism were resolved, elements of the scene were repaired.
Sections of the masts and wire rigging on the ship were missing, so brass wire was drawn down to the appropriate size to replace the missing masts. The wire rigging was then redone with fine copper wire.
The ship, new masts, and rigging were gilded.
Half of the original sea material was missing, having been comprised of isinglass, dried fish swim bladder that is used for a variety of purposes, including confectionery and brewing. This was replaced with new isinglass and painted to resemble the sea from a traditional ship in a bottle.
The fine gold fretwork on the lighthouse was straightened, as much of it had caved in, and a replacement top for the lighthouse was turned from brass to match traditional designs of the period. Both the new top and lighthouse were gilded.
The later brown lead paint from the wooden scenery was removed and the earlier dark green paint was preserved. Art conservation Paraloid B72 Retouching Gels were used to retouch the wooden surface. It became apparent that the lighthouse was originally located in the central recess and had been moved to the higher position on the cliff. The screw at the bottom of the lighthouse is the exact same length as the screw that was used to hold the plates together, the base of the lighthouse fits snugly in the central recess, and the nut used to secure the plates fits the lighthouse. I decided the safest place for the lighthouse is the central recess, as the later hole is a loose fit and the lighthouse is not secured to the wood. The later hole was painted over with the retouching gels (a touch of acetone will remove the gel) and the lighthouse was returned to its central location.
After finishing the mechanism and scenery, I moved on to constructing the case. The case was also quite challenging, as my previous experience was limited and I had only worked as a jeweller before attempting this feat.
The case was constructed from .90mm sterling silver sheet. A cushion shaped steel forming block was used to match historic cases of 1810.
To make things more difficult on myself I decided to make a nine-piece hinge. Not only would this be fiddly from that point of view, I also designed the hinge to be internal to a reeded wire that would form the lip of the lid.
To make the reeded wire, a shaped graver was made out of an old file. The silver was then formed into a circle, fitted to a piece of boxwood, and turned on the lathe. The wire was soldered into place to fit the hinge. The case was then finished using wet and dry paper and polishing compounds.
After the case was polished up, Abby did her magic and I was later presented with a shagreen beauty.
Once the shagreen was put in place, the winding bezel and hinge safety were added and a spring was made for the start/stop lever and inserted in the case. A start/stop button for the mechanism was made from brass and then silvered to match the case.
The very last detail was lining the inside lid. The owner chose a faded blue 19th century silk to resemble the sky.
The project altogether proved to be both very demanding and thoroughly rewarding, ending the academic year on a high note. “God Save the King” will forever be a favoured memento of time well spent in England. I do hope to meet a relative of the ship someday, or maybe I will make one of my own in a bottle.
Hear its rendition of of God Save the King and watch the ship rock to and fro: