Automatons: Curious Little Toys

A curiously fascinating subject to me is humanities desire to imitate life through artificial means.  We have always wanted the power that comes with creating life from gears and pulleys.  Since the ancient Greeks people have craved the ability to create artificial life for company, desire, or plain curiosity.  Over the centuries, inventors became very good at making their mechanical creations walk, roll, and even draw.  These curious little devices are called automatons and were incredibly popular among the inquisitive masses.   Many played sounds and music and others we simply hoax machines meant to deceive and confuse.  For example, a chess playing machine was built only to have a person inside controlling the device.

The “Draftsmen-Writer” was created by Henri Maillardet.  Recently, I’m sure, some of you have seen the movie Hugo that contains an automaton that draws scenes of From the Earth to the Moon.  A similar, real automaton exists at the Franklin Institute that has the most comprehensive memory from the 1800’s at the time it was made.  It can produce 7 complete sketches which includes three poems in two languages.

But I don’t believe that to be the most curious one.

Joseph Faber built a machine that could speak called Euphonia. This consisted of a talking head that could pronounce almost every word appropriately.  To me, the head is by far the oddest thing.

Tipu’s Tiger is a very well known device with a rather dark undertone.  The image is of a tiger (representing Tipu Sultan) and a flailing man (representing Europe).  The man’s arms move and the tiger grunts as it ravages the man to death.  But, on a lighter note, it is a music instrument.

George Moore built a steam-powered walking man in 1893.  With the curious body of a boiler, it was designed to replace horses for pulling carts.  The man could walk at a pace of 9 miles per hour.

Pierre Jaquet-Doz built three automata that can still be seen today. The musician is not recorded music in that the female organ player is really playing the piano while breathing and balancing herself like a real pianist.  He also created a draftsman but this one can only draw 4 objects…one of them being King Louis XV and he will even periodically blow the pencil shaving away.  The last is the writer which can write any custom text 40 letters long.  He inks his quill and his head and eyes follow his hand as he writes.

There is even a machine called The Duck which can eat…and defecate.  It could even splash about in the water!  The creators idea was to demonstrate that all animals are machines of the flesh.

Curiously, I find antique automatons far more beautiful than modern inventions…but then, I believe people had more curiosity back then.  The excitement of a wondrous machine or device sometimes falls in the domain of the disenchanted for today’s tastes.  How I wish we could get that curious energy back!

For your enjoyment, you can see most of these gloriously curious devices in action on youtube!

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10 thoughts on “Automatons: Curious Little Toys

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