Uncanny Automata: Pt 2- 1495 to the 18th Century
-The Antikythera Mechanism
Pulled from the Agean Sea in 1900
Widely believed to be an early analog computer
Now we’ll explore Automata & their eccentric inventors from the 1495 to the present day.
1. Leonardo DaVinci’s ‘Automaton Knight’
Not rediscovered until until the 1960’s, working schematics for a mechanized knight, were recorded in his famous notebooks. (click link for his original sketch). The design, if built sucessfully, was so articulated that it could move its arms, twist its head, and sit up. A working replica was actually constructed, based on his own schematics.
Modern reconstruction of DaVinci’s Robotic Knight
with visible interior mechanisms
The Rennaisance witnessed a new revival in automata, sparked by Heron’s (discussed in Pt. I of this article) treatises being translated into latin and italian. Clockwork automata begame in vogue in the sixteenth century, principally by the goldsmiths of the Free Imperial Cities of central Europe. These wondrous devices found a home in the cabinets of curiosities or “Wunderkammern” of the princely courts of Europe. Hydraulic and pneumatic automata, similar to those described by Heron, were created for garden grottoes.
-Clockwork Monk ca. 16th Century
Attributed to Juanelo Turriano,
mechanician to Emperor Charles V.
The monk could walk in a square, turn his head, strike hist chest,
lift a rosary to his lips, roll his eyes and “mouth silent obsequies”.
After 400 years, he’s still in good working order!
The philospher Decartes introduced a new take on automata when he suggested that the bodies of animals are nothing more than complex machines - the bones, muscles and organs could be replaced with cogs, pistons and cams. Thus mechanism became the standard to which Nature and the organism was compared. Thus, 17th century france began to produce ingenious mechanical toys that were to become prototypes for the engines of the industrial revolution.
-Jacques de Vaucanson
painting depicting his automata The Flute Player
2. Jacques de Vaucanson
The world’s first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be “The Flute Player”, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737. De Vaucanson’s masterpiece was a mechanical duck which performed convincingly enough to fool a live duck. “It quacked, seemed to breathe, ate and drank.”
3. Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790)
“Swiss-born watchmaker of the late eighteenth century. He lived in Paris, London, and Geneva, where he designed and built animated dolls, or automata, to help his firm sell watches and mechanical birds.
The automata of Jaquet-Droz are also considered to be some of the finest examples of human mechanical problem solving. Three particularly complex, and still working and functional dolls are housed at the art and history museum in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, now known as the Jaquet-Droz automata.”
-Three Automata by Pierre Jaquet-Droz
-Detail of the inner workings of his automata hand.
In Part 3 of this series, we’ll explore automata from the 19th century
to the present. If you missed Pt. I, here it is