WHAT IS AN AUTOMATON?
The word “automaton” (plural: automatons or automata) comes from the Greek αὐτόματον which means “acting of one’s own will.” Automatons are mechanical objects that follow a prescribed set of movements once they are manually set into motion. These kinetic, or moving, sculptures have entertained and inspired awe in their audiences for thousands of years.
Generally speaking, there are two types of automatons: those that accompany a functional object and those that are independent, created purely for decoration and pleasure.
Of the first type, clocks and watches with integrated automatons are the most common. For example, during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, many European towns constructed large, public clocks that featured mechanical figures. These humanoid automatons frequently dance or strike a bell at set times throughout the day. On a much smaller scale, a cuckoo clock is perhaps the most famous example of a timepiece featuring an automaton — a combination both practical and whimsical.
The second type of automaton are those decorative objects appreciated solely for their beauty and complex engineering. The most valuable examples are constructed of precious materials, exquisitely finished and boast fully functional internal mechanisms.
French Walking Peacock Automaton. Circa 1890 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
You may be asking: how does an automaton actually work? The internal mechanisms of automatons differ from piece to piece but are designed to function independently once set into motion. The mechanics might include any combination or series of pulleys, levers, gears, springs, fusees and chains, moving water or even steam. Whatever the case, the complex system of mechanisms responsible for powering automatons is typically hidden from view. With the internal mechanisms tucked away, automatons appear to move at will, astonishing viewers with their seemingly autonomous movement.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AUTOMATONS
Although automatons made before the sixteenth century do not survive, numerous texts point to their existence dating back to antiquity. While select automatons were certainly constructed at this early date, some existed in design only while still others are the stuff of legend. The Greek philosopher Plato’s friend Archytas of Tarentum is said to have constructed a wooden pigeon or dove made to move with the help of steam or compressed air. Several centuries later, the Greco-Egyptian mathematician and engineer Heron of Alexandria wrote about automated devices controlled by steam, water and moving weights. His inventions include steam-powered engines, a vending machine, an organ powered by wind and many sound-producing mechanisms for the Greek theatre.
According to Jewish tradition, the throne of King Solomon featured animal automatons set into motion as he ascended the first step. Along the stairs, the animals, beginning with a golden ox and lion, assisted the king as he climbed. Upon reaching his elevated seat, an eagle placed a crown on his head and a dove delivered a Torah scroll.
Early accounts of automatons in China date to the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century BCE, when an elaborate automated orchestra was constructed for the emperor. The publication of the manual Shui shi tu jing (Book of Hydraulic Elegancies) suggests automatons were widely popular in China by the Sui dynasty of the 6th and 7th centuries. In the following Tang dynasty, automatons continued to serve as entertainment within imperial circles, and records describe animal and humanoid automatons including flying birds, an otter, a monk and singing females.
Automatons were likewise popular in royal courts of the Islamic world. Most famous are the water-powered automatons, including a floating orchestra and moving peacocks, invented by al-Jazari and documented in his 1206 manuscript Kitāb fī ma‛rifat al-ḥilal al-handasiyya (Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices).
During the Renaissance, the manufacture of automatons in Europe reached new heights. Renewed interest in automatons probably resulted from increased trade between western Europe and the east as well as the translation of ancient Greek texts, like Heron of Alexandria’s accounts of early automated objects. Clockmakers, goldsmiths and silversmiths capable of constructing and installing intricate mechanical parts proved especially apt at producing automatons. For example, automated nefs (a type of table ornament in the shape of a sailing ship) with moving oars, sails and crew members are thought to have originated in the southern German cities of Augsburg and Nürnberg, both famous for their exquisite gold- and silversmithing in the 16th century.
One of the most celebrated artists of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote extensively about automatons. The artist’s famous notebooks contain sketches for fanciful mechanized creations ranging from a hydraulic clock to a mechanical lion. Most impressive is Leonardo’s design for a robotic man dressed as a German knight capable of sitting, standing, moving his arms and raising his metal visor. The artist is thought to have constructed the automaton in 1495 while in the service of Ludovico Sforza at the court of Milan, the same patron for whom Leonardo painted his famous fresco The Last Supper.
A particularly complex automaton dating to the Renaissance is preserved at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Still fully functional 450 years later, the automaton depicts a monk or friar. It is attributed to the Italio-Spanish clockmaker and inventor Juanelo Turriano. The origins of the automaton are mysterious, but one legend proposes King Philip II commissioned the work after the Franciscan friar Diego d’Alcala (later Saint Diego) miraculously cured his son, the young Spanish prince Don Carlos. Made of iron and wood and decorated with colored enamel, the friar stands at just sixteen inches tall. It is powered by iron clockwork mechanisms contained within a hollow cavity and manually wound by a key. The friar’s moving feet imitate walking, while three small wheels roll the automaton in a trapezoidal pattern. As the friar “walks,” he strikes his chest, raises a rosary to his lips and generally appears as if deep in prayer.
The Dulcimer Player Automaton. Circa 1770 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
In his L’Homme (Treatise on Man) first published in Latin in 1662 and then French in 1664, René Descartes expresses his belief that living organisms are complex machines and likens the organs of animals to the mechanical components of a “clock or other automaton.” A direct result of the groundbreaking text was the production of biomechanical automatons that attempted to blur the line between the living body and inanimate machine.
One example, Jacques de Vaucanson’s 1739 Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, even seemed to eat, digest and excrete food. The gilded copper duck featured movable wings, each constructed of over four hundred parts, and was filled with flexible rubber tubing which served as the fowl’s digestive tract. It appeared to eat grains from the hands of spectators and defecate; however, it was later revealed that the Digesting Duck stored the consumed grain in one compartment and released prefabricated pellets from another. Although Vaucanson’s invention could not actually digest its food, the automaton enchanted its 18th-century audiences. The duck was exhibited at several royal courts and earned the praise of Voltaire: “without...the duck of Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.”
Swiss Gold Singing Bird Box by Bruguier. Circa 1840 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the singing bird box took the world of automatons by storm. These rectangular boxes hide miniature automatons in the shape of a bird. With the push of a lever, the bird appears through a hole in the lid, flapping its wings, moving its beak and tail, and sometimes turning its head, all while singing a tune with the help of a concealed bellows and whistle. The bird automatons were often decorated with real hummingbird feathers, dressing the small machine in iridescent reds, greens and blues and lending authenticity to the illusion.
Swiss automaton maker Pierre Jaquet-Droz is credited with the invention of the singing bird box around 1785, and skilled craftsmen working in Switzerland and France dominated the production of singing bird boxes, both in quantity and quality, throughout the following century.
The production of automatons decreased significantly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to shrinking numbers of skilled craftsmen. A notable exception is the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, who frequently included automatons as the surprise hidden inside of his famous Imperial Easter Eggs. An exquisite example is a key-wound Indian elephant automaton that walks and swings its trunk. The animal is crafted of silver and decorated with cabochon rubies, rose diamonds, gold and enamel. The Fabergé automaton was gifted to King George V for Christmas in 1929 and is still held in the British Royal Collection today.