The Automaton Ship

My favorite restoration object came to me in a small metal tobacco tin as a broken mechanism with the promise of great reward. It’s small – about 3 cm across by 4 cm high and 2 cm deep. It’s known as the fairy ship – a miniature ship automaton that plays “God Save the King”.

No one has ever seen anything like it. This includes every restorer, museum, and historian I could find! There are no pictures of relatives or records of its origin. The owner wanted me to restore it to working order and make a case for it. (The owner and his wife are an amazingly talented team and have workshop in Scotland restoring mostly Golden Age French automata. See their website here)

With a background as jeweller and watchmaker, I felt confident that I was the right person for the job! The challenges at first seemed daunting, but rising to meet them made me a better conservator and strengthened my patience and reserve ten fold.

God Save the King the automaton ship and silver shagreen case
The ship as it was received

I have posted and published on this piece before. You can find the article in the AHS (Antiquarian Horological Society Journal) here and the West Dean blog post here, but I thought the piece deserved a bit more explanation. I will elaborate on bits and pieces of the process in a post from time to time.

Pinned musical cylinder in a pocket watch
Pinned musical cylinder in a pocket watch

Restoring the mechanism to working order required hours of problem solving – and a lot of solitary pondering in the West Dean workshops late into the night.

The object has an early type of music mechanism. These were short lived – as they didn’t work very well – and were replaced by the flat disc mechanism and miniature pinned cylinders found in pocket watches.

As the music mechanism used in the fairy ship is very rare, I had not encountered a similar one before. A couple of the comb teeth offered a feeble note at best when plucked by hand and the pinned music barrel didn’t coax a note from the comb at all.

Music comb
Music comb

I wondered –

where do I start? the bearings in the barrel body and cap are both worn – making the barrel run out of true – so both bearings need bushing. The mainspring is slipping inside the barrel. The pins on the comb are all rounded and worn down. The comb doesn’t sit flat, but at an angle. The teeth of the comb are all different lengths and shapes and sit at different angles….and on and on and on….

I finally decided to resolve each of these in turn and go on from there, but these were just a fraction of the problems in need of resolution.

The scenery and the ship were in a state and I needed to make a case from scratch. My previous experience with case making included a single hinged gilt box fabricated from gilding metal. Gilding metal is really difficult to work with – it sticks to files and eats saw blades by the dozen. A bit of bees wax on the blade can reduce casualties – but plan on starting with a full pack and ending up with half when all is said and done when working with gilding metal.

Starting with the mechanism I made a duplicate music barrel with pins varying in height, angle, and shape in order to investigate possible resolutions for the problems in the original barrel.

TDtest barrel
Rough technical drawing test barrel
Test barrel completed
Test barrel completed
nico cox
Test barrel and original

I found that the shape and height of the pins made the greatest difference to resonance of the comb. Once the best pin shape and height had been identified, I altered all the present pins on the original barrel until they produced a sound on the comb. The replacement of a missing pin put the barrel back into operation after resolving the other aforementioned issues.

I will go into the construction of the silver case in a subsequent post, but for now I’m off to my local co-op to get some groceries for dinner. My sister recently relocated to Seattle and is making kale and potato enchiladas!

3 thoughts on “The Automaton Ship

    1. Why thank you! And the enchiladas were quite delicious. I’ll make them for you some time 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.