Greenblatt's Will in the World describes elaborate festivities that the Earl of Leicester staged in 1575 for the visiting Queen Elizabeth I:

In the single most extravagant entertainment Leicester staged for the queen during her long stay, a twenty-four-foot-long mechanical dolphin rose up out of the waters of the lake adjacent to the castle. On the back of the dolphin -- in whose belly was concealed a consort of wind instruments -- sat the figure of Arion, the legendary Greek musician, who sang, as Langham put it, "a delectable ditty" to the queen....

Wikipedia's account calls the dolphin a "float", but whether it floated or was borne in a parade like a modern "float", I can't tell.

Of what was such a "mechanical dolphin" constructed? Could it really have borne musicians and wind instruments while immersed in a lake? What lifted it out of the lake?


There are two contemporary accounts of those festivities - "Langham letter" and "The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth". These have a certain discrepancy in how they describe this particular episode, but none of them mentions the dolphin being underwater, or it being an automaton. Here's how the author of "Princely Pleasures" describes the event:

From thence her Majestie passing yet further on the brydge, Protheus appeared, sitting on a dolphyn’s back. And the dolphyn was conveyed upon a boate, so that the owers seemed to be his fynnes. Within the which dolphyn a consort of musicke was secretly placed, the which sounded: and Protheus, clearing his voyce, sang this song of congratulation [...]

Thus, it seems the dolphin was simply a boat decorated to look like a marine animal, and Greenblatt added a bit of embellishment to the event in his book.

You can find an article comparing the two accounts here.

  • Intriguing. The dolphin was not "mechanical" at all? I found a 1921 article that uses the same phrase: books.google.com/… – Aaron Brick Jun 4 '19 at 4:42
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    @AaronBrick I can't be 100% sure of it being non-mechanical, obviously. But one account describes it as a boat, and another does not pay it much attention beyond noting its size, and I think that a mechanical submersible would attract a bit more attention than that. – Danila Smirnov Jun 4 '19 at 4:56
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    "Mechanical" could simply refer to a decorative moving superstructure operated by hand, to produce the effect of rising up or fin motion, but nowhere near an automaton and no more complex than a Chinese Dragon Dance. I'm not saying this was the case, but that an intermediate interpretation is possible – Chris H Jun 4 '19 at 15:47
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    @AaronBrick - What Chris said. Mechanical technically can mean "done via a machine". If you read up on simple machines, you'll see most of them are typically hand-operated. Its often said that technically a wheelbarrow is "a machine". – T.E.D. Jun 4 '19 at 16:44
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    I have no idea how "mechanical" that dolphin was, but there is a famous quotation about automatia supposedly made by Regiomontanus (1436-76) "who admires not the fly of Regiomontanus more than his eagle". More firmly historical, the Great Palace at Constantinople had a golden tree with golden birds that flapped their wings and sang, and golden lions that moved their tails and mouths and roared, and a throne that rose high into the air, in the 9th and 10 centuries. – MAGolding Jun 6 '19 at 18:10

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