German Chariot of the Eighteenth CenturyThis curious engraving is printed in an 1853 issue of The Illustrated Magazine of Art, along with an equally curious article. You may read the article for yourself, but the gist of it is this:

A certain John Hanstch of Nuremberg “made chariots which moved by a spring, and went two thousand paces an hour.” The engraving shows Herr Hanstch himself driving the thing. The rest of the short article is mostly filler about how amazed the people of olden times would have been if they could see our steam locomotives of today rocketing across the landscape.

Taking what seems to be the generally accepted estimate of two thousand paces to the mile, the thing moved at a rate of one mile per hour, which is not shockingly fast. In fact, it is about a third of the average person’s walking speed. At least the thing would not be very dangerous to pedestrians. The most decrepit among us could probably have seen it coming in plenty of time to shuffle out of the way.

Now here is the more curious thing: in his admittedly brief and lazy searching, Dr. Boli has not found a single reference to John Hanstch (or Johann Hantzsch, or any of the other variant spellings Dr. Boli could think of) who made clockwork chariots in the 1500s. The only results that come up are this article from this issue of this magazine. The article itself is no help: it gives as the source of its information “several special works upon the history of chariot building, and improvements in locomotion in the fifteenth and following centuries.” That is not very specific, though it sounds scholarly. The engraving leaves us with more questions: if the thing existed, it was so lavishly decorated that it could hardly have been the mechanic’s first attempt. One would not spend so much money—or rather, one’s patron would not spend so much money—on chimeras, seahorse-tailed dogs, and other grotesqueries unless the principle had already been demonstrated satisfactorily.

So Dr. Boli puts the question to the Internet at large, or at least to that elite (which is Internet-speak for “small”) group of readers who visit his Magazine: Is there any other record of this sixteenth-century wind-up chariot? Or is this a rather expensive hoax, in which an engraver put considerable effort into a fanciful conception of what a fifteenth-century clockwork chariot would look like if such a thing had existed?


  1. One would get the impression from many museums and publications that EVERYTHING in ye olden times was decorated with this level of gingerbreading and general gilding of the lilly. Comparing the sleek streamlined modern lines of, say, a Bentley limousine suitable for driving around present-day British Royalty with the baroque monstrosity that is their gilded horse-drawn carriage, it’s easy to see how one might get this impression. Is it entirely due to the propensity for overdecorated luxury goods to be preferentially preserved in museums and illustrated in books, or was a larger percentage of everyday items given the “slap some mythical beasties and complex floral carvings onto everything and then cover it in gold leaf” treatment?

    Might some inventor of wind-up cars you can ride on slap that sort of decoration all over his vehicle? Of course. To show off the quality of workmanship in the only way his rich patrons and/or fellow craftspeople were USED to seeing quality of workmanship shown off: with quality of workmanship of the excessive decoration.

  2. rafinlay says:

    Perchance the author and engraver had a notion to publish a reference work of doubtful accuracy. Nineteenth century humor could be like that, you know. And Dr Boli, of course, having been born in the eighteenth century, probably was around at the time this article was published. Hmmmmm.

  3. RepubAnon says:

    Perhaps the matter is one of scale. Wikipedia notes that “Chariot Clocks” were popular around that time:

    In the historical context of the Renaissance, the so-called chariot clocks born in South Germany, a centre for clockmaking in Europe that flourished between 1550-1650, the leading cities being Augsburg, Nuremberg and Munich. They were selfmoving wheeled tabletop clocks that included automata figurines and some a musical movement too. The German examples have not the dial inserted in the wheel, but in the seat or some other place.

    Most of them were fabricated in Augsburg, although several existing clocks cannot be located due to the lack of inscriptions or hallmarks and are therefore ascribed only to South German workshops. These rare and at those days very costly pieces were only afforded by the nobility and royal courts. (Source: Wikipedia, Chariot Clock)

    Perhaps someone in the mid-1800s found a woodcut of a 16th Century German chariot clock, and made a mistake as to the scale – and subsequent authors cited to the mid-1800s article. A fancifully-decorated tabletop clock capable of one mile per hour seems reasonable, especially given some of the other more ornate clocks pictured in the Wikipedia article.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      This seems extraordinarily likely, and indeed the style of decoration is exactly what one would expect on such a toy. The gallery in the Wikipedia article you link to shows many miniature vehicles similarly decorated with grotesque ornaments and characters from classical mythology.

  4. Tracy Altman says:

    I know nothing about spring-powered chariots; but the learned Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, does mention Prince Maurice’s celebrated sailing chariot, which “was of such wonderful contrivance and velocity as to carry half-a-dozen people thirty German miles, in I don’t know how few minutes.” But that was reportedly invented by “Stevinus, that great mathematician and engineer.”

  1. […] this is a full-size chariot driven by clockwork, with the inventor himself driving it. Dr. Boli, unable to find it anywhere but in this magazine, asked his readers for help, and one of them came […]

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