Our generation has been robbed. Technology trends towards the bland, as the curved electronic rectangles in our homes will attest. Before the height of aesthetic enjoyment was pebble-smooth minimalism, however, designers often had another goal: enchantment. Automatons were ancestors of the modern computer, but their creators also delighted in a magic trick: the illusion that they acted of their own will. Even in an age where all human progress is available in our pocket and is boring, automatons can spellbind us into believing, momentarily, that they are somehow alive.
Ctesibius’ water clock
We don’t know much about Ctesibius’ life, but it’s evident that career progression was easier in ancient Greece: his journey from barber to the father of pneumatics is surely the envy of anyone in a rum job. Among the inventor and mathematician’s many contributions were his improvements to the clepsydra, which measured time using the flow of water. As well as making a clock that was the most accurate in the world for 1,800 years (the earliest was found buried in Amenhotep’s ancient Egyptian tomb), he added singing mechanical swans, bells, puppets and best of all, an owl that moved.
It’s unsurprising that Japan is a robotics pioneer given the emergence of karakuri during the country’s Edo period, between 1603 and 1868. For two centuries these mechanised humans were a part of everyday life, performing in theatres and religious festivals and used for parlour tricks at home. Eschewing metal for native wood and coiled whalebone springs, craftsmen built karakuri that fired arrows, climbed stairs or acted out myths. The most popular dolls were chahakobi ningyo: forward-thinking marvels which could deliver a cup of tea to you. Teasmades are less impressive all of a sudden.
Singing bird boxes
The idea of a device that does just one thing is unfashionable today, but from the late 1700s until World War I the must-have item for Europe’s affluent was a tabatière that briefly produced birdsong. Its appeal was in its simplicity: a slider was pushed on an ornate box to reveal a mechanical bird, flapping its wings, moving its head and singing. Thanks to artisans like former clockmaker Blaise Bontems, such automata authentically recreated the songs of different birds from finches to blackbirds to nightingales. Bird boxes were the cousin of watches, but their only function was beauty.
The New Motive Power
In 1853, the Spiritualist John Murray Spear was seized by an idea. He would create heaven’s last, best gift: an electrically-powered messiah. The automaton, called ‘New Motive Power’, or the ‘Electric Infant’, or the ‘Wonderful Infant’, would exalt mankind. Spear was calm about his engineering inexperience: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other spirit ‘Electrizers’ were working through him to build the machine, made of components including magnetic spheres, antennae, zinc batteries and a dining room table. After nine months, a ceremony: allegedly, the Electric Infant trembled, and then moved no more.
Animals are a mainstay of automata: in Jewish mythology, Solomon designed a throne where a menagerie of golden mechanical beasts would greet him and bring items, like if Wallace enjoyed trying to cut babies in half instead of eating Wensleydale. A grisly-yet beautiful 18th-century iteration is Tipu’s Tiger, which was the eponymous Mysore sultan’s prized possession until the British killed him and captured it. The semi-automaton/pipe organ re-enacts the mauling of a European man with accompanying tiger grunts and death wails, and is absolutely mad when you think about it.
The Jaquet-Droz automata
While they’re still made, automatons have been overtaken by the developments in robotics and computing that they anticipated. The form’s apogee was possibly the efforts of watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his workshop. His trio of doll automata, finished in 1774, remain astonishing: a draughtsman who can draw four images (blowing his pencil every now and then), a musician who plays the organ, watches her fingers and appears to breathe, and a boy whose 6,000 parts, programmable memory and goose feather quill are capable of writing anything. As an expression of mechanical imagination, they are wondrous.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three. Illustrations by Eleni Kalorkoti.