Back in the day, the day being any time between, say, 1520 and 1600, the way to the heart of the Turkish sultans was through clockwork. Makes sense. When you have the wealth of the world at your disposal, you want the unusual and the unique. Toys, essentially, the fiddly wind-up spring machine types that whirred and turned and chimed and bonged. Fortunately for Europe, there were men who excelled in this kind of trivia.
As with anything that is not a mere commodity, the novelty value had to gear up over time. A simple one handed pocket watch becomes a bore, and so further complications – second hands, moon phases, twittery birds – have to be grafted onto the basic work. By the turn of the seventeenth century, it would take something very complicated indeed to turn the head of a jaded potentate. And as at that time, Britain, not yet fully engaged with its eventual empire, was still wooing the sultans in hopes of profitable trade arrangements for the Levant Company, the gift had to be spectacular indeed.
So in 1598, what were the good merchants of London going to send to Mehmed III?
Enter Thomas Dallum, member in good standing of London’s Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths.
Thomas Dallum was born in Dallam, Lancashire, and made his way to London to apprentice to that guild, which had a sub-section for organ makers. It was one of these that the merchants decided would do the trick. If Dallum could work in some automata as well, so much the better. In the end, what he came up with was a combination organ cum clockwork of oak and gilded metal standing some twelve feet high and festooned with every complication one could imagine.
Like a player piano, it could run automatically or manually. The clockwork, cranked up once, would play for up to six hours. It had, literally, bells and whistles (carved trumpeters for the latter), pipes that could play five songs, a twenty four hour clock with sun position and moon phases, a carved, bejeweled, Queen Elizabeth with a scepter she could raise and lower. Around the queen revolved planets, above her a talking head gave the time, and highest above were birds in a holly bush, twittering as as birds will do.
No surprise that the organ was complicated enough to require Dallum to be on sight to install it. Which is why, in 1599, Thomas Dallum was on board the Hector for the long trip from London to Constantinople, a trip which he was good enough to leave an account of.
Uneasy times to be at sea, the more so for an English ship when Spain ruled the waves. Pirates hove out of Dunkirk, fortunately without effect. Passing Gibraltar was a test of seamanship, and once inside the Mediterranean, there were Barbary Corsairs to contend with. Near Samos, when pirates approached the Hector, they were warded off not by gunpowder, but by earsplitting trumpets aimed in their general direction.
Dallum writes it all down, as well as the interesting things he came across in Greece and Constantinople. He somehow managed to peer through the grate into the Sultan’s harem in between his time setting up the organ/clock for its intended recipient. (“som of them did weare fine cordevan buskins, and som had their leges naked, with a goulde ringe on the smale of her legg; on her foute a velvett panttoble 4 or 5 inches hie.” )*
He played the thing for the Sultan, was applauded and got a bag of gold for his efforts, then headed home with numerous stops at the usual touristic places. And he made it back home, married, had a son in 1602, his great adventure recorded, preserved, for gotten until a private collector got it over to the British Museum where it still rests.
Sadly, the organ didn’t last. Mehmed’s successor, Ahmed I, was a pious man and could not square the the contraption with his religious scruples.** He had it destroyed in 1603. Dallum, still a young man, went on to more conventional organs, and siring other organ makers of some distinction. A worthwhile and interesting life.
The diary appears in Hakluyt’s volumes in Dallum’s idiosyncratic spelling. Happily, a full account in Dallum’s diary (modernized and given context by John Mole) is easily had, and well worth the read. (Less easily to be found is Stanley Mayes An Organ for the Sultan.)
*“That sighte did please me wondrous well”
** The Mehmeds seem to have had a cosmopolitan streak in them. Mehmed II had Belliniover from Venice to paint his famous portrait, and, it is alleged, some erotic frescoes in palaces private quarters. More fastidious later sultans were said to have white washed them over. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever bothered to look for them since.