By: Art & Antiques Magazine
Automata (plural of automaton) originated in ancient Greece and were mankind's earliest attempts to realize the dream of making a mechanical object imitate life. The Greeks themselves credited the mythical inventor Daedalus with fashioning animated statues with voices created by flowing quicksilver. The poet Pindar related that on the island of Rhodes, the streets were lined with statues that could move and seemed to breathe. A real-life Greek inventor of the 3rd century B.C., Ctesibius, constructed a metal owl with a water whistle inside that made it emit lifelike hoots.
In Renaissance Europe, there arose a renewed passion for experiments with automata; some were amazingly complex early robots, human figures that could-supposedly, do things like play chess and write documents. With the spread of Descartes' mechanistic philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries, inventors exerted themselves to duplicate both the outer and inner workings of animals to prove that there was no true difference between living beings and machines.
Naturally, there was considerable overlap between the realms of automata and clock-making. In 19th-century Switzerland and France, both centers of horology, there were many ingenious makers of mechanical animals, so many, in fact, that the years from 1860 to 1910 are referred to as "the Golden Age of automata." Mechanical singing birds were a particularly popular variety of automata, and they could be very lifelike. Luxurious jeweled "bird boxes" were made to house the tiny chirping robots. One Swiss manufacturer around 1860 went for a more realistic approach in constructing the nearly 17-inch-high gilded brass octagonal cage shown here to house his avian automaton. The bird itself is adorned with real hummingbird feathers to achieve a lifelike appearance. When the key at the base is turned, the mechanical creature comes to life, singing its song while opening and closing its beak, moving from side to side, and flapping its wings. This astonishing object is available from MS Rau Antiques of New Orleans.