Industrious Little Creatures, Full of Gears and Wonder
When we say that today’s rapidly changing technology is set to transform the way we live in unimaginable ways, we should remember that people thought much the same thing in earlier centuries – whether in the time of the clockwork revolution in the eighteenth century or as a result of the scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution in the Victorian era.
Here are a few examples of fascinating early robots and automatons, full of great engineering and wonder:
(left: L’Oiseleur (The Bird Trainer), the most expensive automaton doll – 6.25 million US dollars, info)
Leonardo da Vinci is renowned for his inventions that were often centuries ahead of their time, so it’s not surprising to learn that he was also active in developing automatons. Leonardo’s ‘robot’ was designed around 1495 and the notes were rediscovered in a sketchbook in the 1950’s. We have no idea if Leonardo actually tried to build the device, but a version was built based on his designs and did actually work, being capable of reproducing several humanoid movements.
In England, the famous astrologer and mathematician John Dee designed a wooden beetle in 1543 that could actually fly:
Noble Studios produced a modern steampunk version of a mechanical beetle:
“The industrious mechanical beetle scurried to and fro in the garden, hoping to hide her vulnerability under the hard shell of indifference.”
From Germany, this small wooden puppet depicting a monk also dates from the mid sixteenth century and has a lever and a mechanism for the figure’s joints (below left). On the right is the Italian female lute player automaton, which dates from the same period:
As watch making developed in the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, so did the art of creating mechanical people and animals. Jacques Vaucason created numerous working figures, including a flute player, which actually played the instrument, in 1738, plus this duck from 1739. The gilded copper bird could sit, stand, splash around in water, quack and even give the impression of eating food and digesting it:
Later in the eighteenth century, Pierre Jaquet-Doz created three automata, The Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician, which are still considered scientific marvels today. The Draughtsman is capable of producing four distinct pictures, while the Writer dips his pen in the ink and can write as many as forty letters. The Musician’s fingers actually play the organ and the figure ends her performance with a bow.
Henri Maillardet’s Automaton, which illustrates and writes several verses in both French and English (watch a video), was built in 1805. Over a century later, in 1928, it was acquired by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, although at the time, the object’s history was uncertain. However, once the automaton had been repaired and operated again for the first time in many decades, it wrote the words ‘written by the automaton of Maillardet’, thus solving the mystery.
The Joueuse de Tympanon was built in 1772 (watch video) and presented to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, then later restored by Robert Houdin in 1864. Houdin was renowned as an inventor, clockmaker and even as a magician, creating many mechanical marvels of his own. Some figures often simply mimicked the actions in time with a musical box inside the machine, but this automaton really plays the instrument.
The Turk was invented in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen and was an apparent chess master, defeating such illustrious opponents as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. The mechanical hand moved the game pieces and the device’s cabinet doors could be opened to show a variety of complicated gears and other machinery. However, the mechanical marvel was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax, with a person hidden inside the box directing the chess moves. There was even a sliding seat that allowed the operator to stay hidden when the doors were opened for people to examine the fake machinery.
Other hoaxes existed – for example, this automaton called Nancy from the late 1800’s was operated from beneath the stage by a hand crank (watch video).
This rather curious example dates from the 1790’s and once belonged to Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore and a fierce opponent of the expansion of British rule in India. The wooden automaton, containing a miniature organ, shows a tiger, which apparently actually growls, attacking a European soldier:
An intricate baroque automaton from German (Augsburg), ca. 1620, Diana and the Stag can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
(image credit: Elissa)
“The stag has a hollow body and a removable head and can be used as a drinking cup. When used in drinking games, a mechanism in the base was wound up and the automaton was allowed to run freely on concealed wheels…”
Euphonia, a machine that could mimic a human voice, was developed by Joseph Faber in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Using German accented English, it could read the alphabet, sing, whisper, laugh and even utter the words “How do you do, ladies and gentlemen”. Apparently anyone who inspected the Euphonia’s mechanical workings was convinced that no trickery was involved, such as Faber employing a ventriloquist:
This remarkable steam-powered, life-sized man, using a gas boiler, was built in 1893 by Canadian George Moore and had a walking speed of around nine mph:
Another walking “Electric Man” was introduced in Strand Magazine of London by inventor Louis Philip Perew – and was demonstrated in 1900 (more info):
“It walked smoothly, and almost noiselessly… It was controlled by means of an electric battery. The walk was rapid, and at the end of the journey around the hall the step was as resilient as at the beginning. The inventor of the machine-man said it could keep up that pace for an almost unlimited time. But the figure, on this question, spoke for itself. “I am going to walk from New York to San Fransisco,” it said, in a deep clear voice… Within the bosom of the automation is concealed a talking machine. Perew’s man may be taught to say anything.”
(top & left images: Frank Reade’s Steam Man; right image: 1868 “Steam Man” by Dederick, more info)
From the pages of Science and Invention, 1924, comes this Radio Police Automaton:
Automatons Have Rights!
…according to artist Kandace Commons (spokesperson for Society of the Promotion of Construct Rights), and they are ready to stand up for it, too!
(art by Kandace Commons)
More modern automaton-android design seem to be particularly enigmatic with its highly-reflective and unemotional face:
(image via Modern Mechanix)