The "model chamber" is the repository of miniature prototypes of famous warships, boat carriages driven by oxen and horses, and the Karlskrona naval shipyard's mighty mast crane. A tour of the Naval Museum's model chamber gives us a fantastic glimpse of naval architecture and engineering in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Sweden.

The model chamber is the mother of today's Naval Museum. It is a huge hall, full of models of ships, buildings, machines and other structures, mainly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of the models refer to originals that were actually built, or were in any case once intended to be built, and provide unique insight into the scientific thinking and architecture of the past.

The model chamber's history goes farther back in time. In 1752, King Adolf Fredrik ordered the erection of model chambers at the navy stations of Karlskrona, Gothenburg and Stockholm. It was a time of enlightenment, in which science took giant steps forward, and old world views were challenged. The king's decision called for the building of ship models as well as artillery models (which were to include models of cannons and ammunition).

The model chamber in today's Naval Museum contains primarily objects from the ship model chamber at Karlskrona. A ship model chamber had several purposes, the most important being to build miniature models of ships, buildings, technical tools and other structures, to test how well the structures worked in practice. For instance, the large, water-filled tanks enabled visitors to carefully review the properties of the different ship types. However, the models were also used to demonstrate different projects to the king and other powerful people, or for training. There were also "museum pieces", which were meant for display only.

The model chamber grows

Gothenburg, it seems, never had a ship model chamber, while in Stockholm the models were scattered and were apparently frequently moved around. As for Karlskrona, it took a while before the city received a ship model chamber of any substantial size.

In the beginning of the 1780s, the shipbuilder Fredrik Henrik af Chapman moved to Karlskrona from Stockholm, where he had been the head of the Djurgård naval shipyard. His mission, while crystal-clear, was nevertheless daunting: to build up Gustav III's fleet with new line ships and frigates.

For a long time, naval architecture had been somewhat of a closed shop, the craft being handed down through the generations among shipbuilding families that were careful not to spread trade secrets outside the family. In 1783, Fredrik Henrik af Chapman sold his old ship models to the Crown. He was given a successful model workshop in the Karlskrona naval shipyard and employed six model builders. In 1801, the ship model chamber acquired the models of the famous Sheldon shipbuilding family. By 1834, according to the inventory list for that year, the chamber had 400 models.

"Windmill car" or something totally different?

The model chamber of the Naval Museum contains more than just ship and boat models, however. For example, we can find models of structures that we know actually took form, such as the mast crane at the Karlskrona naval dockyard (built in 1806) and an eighteenth-century octagonal boat carriage that was driven by horses and oxen. There are also models that we would not expect could ever work – models of structures that were likely scrapped right at the conception stage.

Then there are others, for which the source material is too scant or absent and cannot give us the truth, such as the "windmill car". This model, from the 1700s, shows a three-wheeled cart supporting a windmill, the cart being driven by the mill's wings. But what was it conceived to be? As a guess, perhaps the device was meant to operate certain types of machinery, such as grindstones. Or is the truth something completely different, yet more fascinating: could it have been a 1700s car that was driven by wind power?

We do not know whether the "windmill car" was actually built or if it was stopped at the model stage. Nor do we know what it was intended for – we can only speculate.

The ship model chamber, at one time, must have been a place where creativity abounded – a place where imagination set the limits.