The Chronometer and Planetarium System


The Chronometer and Planetarium System plate is accompanied by an explanatory key on the preceding two pages of the text. Most of the bottom of the print is taken up by Fig. 5, a rectangular figure whose purpose within the planetarium is not fully explained by the text. Above this is a measured line for scale, and then the outward appearance of the planetarium itself. The plate shows none of the inner-workings or planetary systems explained by the text, but rather presents the outward frontal appearance of the machine. The base of the planetarium is decorated with ornamental figures and garland, including a woman on the right insert. The Chronometer or main clock is the tallest central structure, and contains three separate clock dials. It is flanked on both sides by arched structures; these contain the two planetary systems which would have been observable from above, though the Schoenhardt drawings do not depict these as enclosed but rather as flat discs on which the systems move (King 238, fig. 14.12). Above the chronometer rise several pedestals which support a vase-like object. To the left of the Chronometer, disconnected and floating, is the “Celestial globe” supported upon a column. This would have appeared in front of the chronometer. As King notes, the actual globe “is said to have the Milky Way and 1500 stars depicted on its surface” (240).

Primary Works: 

Description of a Planetarium or Astronomical Machine (London, 1791)

Description of a Planetarium, or, Astronomical Machine, in which this print appears, is an anonymous thirty-two page pamphlet that seeks to explain the mechanism of Hahn’s astronomical clock, possibly in connection with its exhibition in London in 1791. According to King, “[t]he text followed Hahn’s manuscript fairly closely, but omitted a section concerned with the machine’s overall appearance” (237-38). It begins by comparing the astronomical clock to other mechanical wonders, stating:
This Astronomical Machine is not to be classed among those trifling mechanic constructions, which, though they often exhibit great ingenuity, are of no further utility than to surprise, or amuse, the illiterate spectator, and are always found defective in the eyes of competent judges. (3)
The text then goes on to explain the clockwork mechanism and the astronomical precision of each astronomical system depicted by the machine, and concludes with both an explanation of how the chronometer clock works and an elucidation of the plate:
Fig. 1, 2, 3, and 4, represent the elevation of this Machine.

Fig. 5, the plan of the same.

Fig. 1. The Chronometer.

Fig. 2. Is a glass case, with a globular top, that contains the Copernic [sic] system without satellites.

Fig. 3. Within this case are the systems of the Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, with their Moons.

Fig. 4. Is the Celestial globe upon its pillar, detached from the Machine, as it would hide some part of the Chronometer: its proper place is marked with the letter a on the plan, Fig. 5.

All the outward parts are made of hard wood, and executed with the greatest care and perfection. The ornaments are chased and double gilt. The systems are surrounded and covered with glass; so that all the motions may be observed without taking off the covers. (31-32)

Accession Number: 

Q0.1 D4495

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This print appears as the final plate in the anonymous pamphlet Description of a Planetarium, or Astronomical Machine, which exhibits the most remarkable Phaenomena [sic], Motions, and Revolutions of the Universe. Invented, and partly executed, by the celebrated Mr. Phil. Matthew Hahn, member of the Academy of Science at Erfurt, and Finished and Completed, By Mr. Albert de Mylius. London: Printed in the Year M.DCC.LXXXXI (1791).
Phillipp Matthäus Hahn began to design the Weltmaschine planetarium in 1772. According to Henry King, the machine
was the logical outcome of Hahn’s preoccupation with accurate wheelwork and desire to reproduce in one structure all the then-known celestial motions. Its development during the course of nearly 20 years was not an isolated activity but one that depended on and initiated work in other areas. (238)
Hahn died in 1790 before the completion of the planetarium, which the pamphlet attributes to Albert de Mylius. At some point the machine was sold, and "it is . . . probable that the purchaser of the machine brought it to London with the intention of putting it on public exhibition,” where it appeared in 1791 (King 238). The pamphlet, also published in 1791, was possibly produced in connection with this exhibition. In 1793, Lord Macartney brought it as ambassadorial gift to Emperor Chhien-Lung of China. Apparently it was not well-received and was returned to Europe, “very much the worse for wear” (King 238).
The Weltmaschine is owned today by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nüremberg; however, only the center cabinet is intact. The machine was already in poor condition when the museum obtained it in 1877, and it was further damaged during World War II (King 237).

C. F. Schoenhardt made several colored drawings of Hahn’s Weltmaschine prior to its exhibition in London that are generally thought to be accurate. However, these drawings are quite distinct from the print shown here, in overall appearance if not in mechanism. King notes that in the English pamphlet “[t]he casework, illustrated by a folding plate, bore no resemblance to that depicted by Schoenhardt,” but can offer no explanation for the differences (238).
The Chronometer and Planetarium System is an illustrative plate that accompanies a pamphlet on the famous mechanical planetarium invented by the German engineer Philipp Matthäus Hahn (1739-1790).
Like James Cox’s perpetual clock, Hahn’s planetarium highlights the importance of clockwork mechanism to eighteenth-century mechanical engineering, scientific explanation, and automata. The planetarium seems far afield from the automaton ducks and dolls considered by Riskin and other scholars of automata, as well as by the museum culture of London; however, the pamphlet’s opening calls direct attention to the planetarium’s participation in both of these Romantic phenomena. As it reads,
this Astronomical Machine is not to be classed among those trifling mechanic constructions, which, though they often exhibit great ingenuity, are of no further utility than to surprise, or amuse, the illiterate spectator, and are always found defective in the eyes of competent judges. The circumstantial description, which we here propose to give, of this superb Machine, will convince our readers . . . that it is even far superior to the many ingenious mechanical productions which have hitherto obtained general approbation, not only on account of the great exactitude of every Phaenomena [sic] it represents, but also on account of the simplicity and solidity of its Mechanism: qualities, which undoubtely [sic] place it among the most ingenious and remarkable Master-pieces of Mechanics, and which render it the fittest and most agreeable medium through which we may obtain a thorough knowledge of that most sublime and entertaining Science—the Science of Astronomy. (3-4)
The opening calls to mind the “trifling mechanic structures” of Cox’s Museum and other automata exhibitions. Like Andrew Ure’s encyclopedic entry on automata, it also suggests that mechanical ingenuity must move from luxury goods production and spectacle to practical, use-oriented mechanics—in this case, towards scientific instruction. It depicts the planetarium not as an elaborate luxury clock (which it resembles), but as a scientific instrument. Despite the author’s attempt to separate the planetarium from spectacle and luxury, however, he draws attention to the significant overlaps between these registers of viewing that Hahn’s planetarium itself seems to have invited. As Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman argue in Instruments and the Imagination, scientific “instruments moved easily from natural philosophy to art and to popular culture” (5), “reappear[ing] as a philosophical instrument, as an instrument of entertainment, or as a practical ‘invention’ in a new guise” (221)—a mobility that Hahn’s planetarium demonstrates literally as well as figurally.

The narrative of the clock’s journey to China and its rejection there also reveals the importance of the Eastern trade market in the production and imagination of automata of all kinds. King notes that export of “sing-songs” had been replaced by export of scientific instruments, but without much more success (238).
This print is meant to illustrate and instruct viewers on the workings of Hahn’s planetarium.
Hahn, Philipp Matthäus, and Albert de Mylius. Description of a Planetarium, or Astronomical Machine, which exhibits the most remarkable Phaenomena, Motions, and Revolutions of the Universe. London, 1791. Print.

Hankins, Thomas and Robert Silverman. Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.

King, Henry and John Millburn. Geared to the Stars: The Evolution of Planetariums, Orreries, and Astronomical Clocks. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1978. Print.

Philipp Matthäus Hahn, 1739-1790: Ausstellungen des Wurttembergischen Landesmuseums Stuttgart und der Stadte Ostfildern, Albstadt, Kornwestheim, Leinfelden-Echterdingen. Ed. Christian Vaterlein and Aagje Ricklefs. Stuttgart: Wurttembergisches Landesmuseum Stuttgart, 1989. Print.

Riskin, Jessica. “The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life.” Critical Inquiry 29.4 (2003): 599-633. Print.
The Chronometer and Planetarium System.

Hahn, Philip Matthäus. Description of a planetarium or astronomical machine. (London: s.n., 1791). Final plate.


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