A Gift Fit for a Sultan: Thomas Dallam’s Clockwork Organ

A Gift Fit for a Sultan: Thomas Dallam’s Clockwork Organ

24 January 2022
Dallam’s journal documents the travels, trials, and fortunes of the extraordinary clockwork organ sent by Elizabeth and the Levant Company

In this blog I explore an unexpected cross-over between my interests in English contact with the Ottoman Empire and my work as Assistant Editor on the Oxford University Press Complete Works of John Marston (gen. eds. Martin Butler and Matthew Steggle). While preparing my old-spelling edition of Marston’s Jacke Drums Entertainment (performed 1599 or 1600; published 1601), I was struck by a description of a comically verbose character, who is likened to ‘the Instrument the Mechants sent over to the great Turke: you need not play upon him, heele make musicke of himselfe, and [i.e. ‘if’] hee bee once set going’ (sig. E2r). This ‘Instrument’ in fact refers to a clockwork organ made by Thomas Dallam, which was sent as a gift to Sultan Mehmed III in 1599.

Figure 1: Detail from Jacke Drums Entertainment (London, 1601), sig. E2r.

The construction of this lavish clockwork organ was financed by the Levant Company and sent as a gift from Queen Elizabeth I in a bid to secure favour with the Sultan, who would not recognize the new English ambassador at the Ottoman court until this gesture had been made. Jennifer Linhart Wood describes the organ as ‘a necessary element in a complex set of diplomatic protocols that enabled the English Levant Company to maintain a commercial relationship with the Ottoman Empire’.[1] The automated organ was certainly a fitting and costly gift for the Sultan; it was sixteen feet high and featured an inset clock as well as ornate decoration and figures, including trumpeters and a bush of holly with clockwork birds which could be made to flap their wings and ‘sing’.[2] The organ could be played manually or automatically via its clockwork mechanisms, inviting those present to marvel at the skill and ingenuity behind the ‘invention’.

While no contemporary depictions of this particular organ survive, it’s possible to get a general impression of such an instrument by viewing a recording of an early modern musical clock found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections. This example might not be as large or lavish as was Dallam’s creation, but it nevertheless demonstrates the visual and aural effects of the intricate clockwork assemblages that perform automated motion and music.[3]

Figure 2: Musical Clock with Spinet and Organ, Veit Langenbucher (c. 1625). Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Upon seeing a demonstration of Dallam’s clockwork organ in action at Whitehall Banqueting House, Elizabeth was impressed and approved it as a suitably extravagant gift for Mehmed. Dallam himself accompanied the organ on its journey to the Ottoman Empire, setting off in early February 1599 and finally arriving at the Sultan’s court in September. Dallam documented his journey and sojourn in Turkey, and his account offers many interesting descriptions and anecdotes about the people and places that he encountered.[4] Dallam’s account, unlike many early modern travel narratives, did not make it into print until the nineteenth century, when an edition of it was published by the Hakluyt Society.[5]

We learn from Dallam that his intricate creation suffered damage during its travels, and he describes how he and other craftsmen who accompanied him on the journey fixed the instrument so that it could be re-assembled and played.[6] On 25th September 1599 Dallam presented the organ to the Sultan at Topkapi Palace and demonstrated its capacity for automated performance:

The presente began to salute the grand sinyor; for when I lefte it I did alow a quarter of an houre for his cominge thether. firste the clocke strouke 22; than The chime of 16 bels went of, & played a songe of 4 partes. that beinge done, tow personagis which stood upon to cornders of the seconde storie houldinge tow silver trumpetes in there hands did lifte them to theire heads, & sounded a tantarra. Than the mvsicke went of, and the orgon played a song of 5 partes twyse over. In the tope of the orgon, being 16 foute hie did stande a holly bushe full of blacke birds & thrushis, which at the end of the mvsick did singe & shake theire wynges. Divers other motions thare was which the grand sinyor wondered at.[7]

It is clear from this description that the organ would have been a wonder to behold, with its decorative figurines animated by many intricate mechanisms hidden from sight, giving the impression of autonomous motion, working ‘behind the scenes’ to drive air into the bellows and through the pipes. Dallam goes on to describe how the Sultan bid him to carry out a manual performance on the instrument, presumably to test the capacity of both the organ and its maker.

According to Dallam, he and the enormously expensive mechanical marvel were both well received at the Ottoman court. However, as later evidence suggests, the organ did not survive for very long in its new home: it was destroyed by Mehmed’s successor, Ahmed I, who became Sultan in 1603 and saw the organ’s self-animating figures as idolatrous.[8] Dallam’s journal documents the travels, trials, and fortunes of the extraordinary clockwork organ sent by Elizabeth and the Levant Company, demonstrating the importance of investing into such lavish gifts as a means of securing agreements that would provide the English with access to trade routes and markets.

Header Image: Engraving of Sultan Mehmed III. Image credit: National Galleries Scotland

[1] Jennifer Linhart Wood, ‘An Organ’s Metamorphosis: Thomas Dallam’s Sonic Transformations in the Ottoman Empire’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 15.4 (2015), 81-105 (p. 81).

[2] For a discussion of the significance and implications of gifting a clock to the Sultan, see Eric L. De Barros, ‘The Gatekeeping Politics of “Good” Historicism: Early Modern Orientalism and “The Diary of Mater Thomas Dallam”’, College Literature, 43.4 (2016), 619-44.

[3] See also a nineteenth-century illustration of an early modern clockwork organ based on a now lost sketch and description in the Merchant Taylors’ Company records (Illustrated London News, 20 Oct 1860), reproduced here. Some scholars believed that this was a representation of Dallam’s organ, but it does not quite correspond to the craftsman’s own description of the instrument.

[4] Dallam’s manuscript ‘journal’ is entitled ‘A brefe Relation of my Travell from the Royall Cittie of London towardes The Straite of mariemediterranum and what hapened by the waye’ (British Library Add MS 17480).

[5] For a modernized edition of Dallam’s journal see: John Mole, The Sultan’s Organ: London to Constantinople in 1599 and Adventures on the Way: The Diary of Thomas Dallam 1599 (Fortune, 2012). For a descriptive summary of the account see: John Carswell, ‘The Queen, the Sultan, and the Organ’, Asian Affairs, 25.1 (1994), 13-23.

[6] For an account of the damage see Linhart Wood, p. 84-6.

[7] Thomas Dallam, ‘A brefe Relation’, fol. 55v (quoted in Linhart Wood, pp. 87-8).

[8] See Linhart Wood, pp. 96-7.