The term “robot” was coined in the 1920s, so it’s tempting to think of the robot as a relatively recent phenomenon, less than 100 years old. After all, how could we bring metal men to life before we could harness electricity and program computers? But the truth is, robots are thousands of years old.
The first records of automata, or self-operating machines that give the illusion of being alive, go back to ancient Greece and China. While it’s true none of these ancient androids could pass the Turing Test, neither could early 20th-century robots—it’s only in the last 60 years that scientists began to develop “artificial brains.” But during the European Renaissance, machinists built life-size, doll-like automata that could write, draw, or play music, producing the startling illusion of humanity. By the late 19th century, these magical machines had reached their golden age, with a wide variety of automata available in high-end Parisian department stores, sold as parlor amusements for the upper middle class.
One of the largest publicly held collections of automata, including 150 such Victorian proto-robots, lives at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, as part of the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, which also features 750 mechanical musical instruments, from music boxes and reproducing pianos to large orchestrions and band organs.
“Murtogh Guinness was one of the elders of the Guinness brewing family based in Dublin, Ireland,” says Jere Ryder, an automata expert and the conservator of the Guinness Collection. “Guinness traveled extensively throughout the world with his parents, and they had homes around the globe. But just after World War II, he decided he loved New York City best—with its opera, ballet, Broadway shows, and antiques—so he established a permanent residence there. That’s when he rediscovered mechanical music and automata and started to collect them with a passion.” Guinness died at age 89 in January 2002, and a year later, his collection was awarded to the Morris Museum.
Ryder’s connection to Murtogh Guinness goes way back. His parents, Hughes and Frances Ryder, were collectors and members of the Musical Box Society International. In the late 1950s, Guinness, then in his 40s, had learned of their music-box collection. When Jere and his brother, Stephen, first met the Guinness heir, they were toddlers.
“Guinness—who never drove himself anywhere—had to call a taxi to bring him all the way out to New Jersey from New York City,” Ryder says, remembering that first meeting. “He came knocking on our door in the evening. I was about 2 years old, and my brother, Steve, was just a year older. That was the night Guinness first met my father and my mother, and they struck up a lifelong friendship. He and my dad both had a passion for collecting these things. Of course, our family was not in the same league, collecting-wise. Mr. Guinness had the wherewithal to take it to a whole different level.” Given his early exposure, it’s no wonder Ryder would go on to apprentice with automata makers in Switzerland, repair and sell automata for a living, and write extensively on the subject with his brother.
In May, the Morris Museum hosted its second-ever AutomataCon, which brought together 300 makers, collectors, and fans of all things automata. The convention corresponded with an annual exhibition of modern-day kinetic art. Of course, a rotating exhibition of half-a-dozen pieces from the Guinness Collection are on display at the museum year-round, and live demonstrations of selected machines take place at 2 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays.
“In keeping with Murtogh Guinness’ wishes, we provide regular demonstrations of selected instruments and automata,” says Michele Marinelli, the curator of the collection. “These are moving pieces. They need to be seen and heard.”
The demonstrations always draw a crowd of gawkers. “When people today first see these things operate or hear them play, they’re just mesmerized,” Ryder says. “If people are in the next room and you turn one on, it’s like a magnet. They ask, ‘When were these made?’ We tell them, ‘Before electric lights.’
“These were the state-of-the-art entertainment devices of their day,” Ryder continues. “Back then, people didn’t have iPods, or even radios. The phonograph hadn’t been invented. Think of that. Now, place yourself in that period and imagine you’re watching or hearing this technology. At the Morris Museum, we try to remove people from the cacophony of today’s electronics to help them imagine the impact of these machines.”
Automata—those magical simulations of living beings—have long enchanted the people who see them up close. Ancient humans first captured their own likenesses with paintings, sculptures, and dolls. Then, they made dolls that could move and, eventually, puppets.
“Man’s fascination with replicating human or living creatures’ characteristics is an ancient thing,” Ryder says. “Back in the earliest times, the makers of carved dolls started to use articulated limbs, with joints at the shoulders, knees, and hips in order to pose the dolls, before they had a way to mechanize the figures. It’s all an outgrowth of this human desire to see life replicated in a realistic manner.”
If you’ve ever watched the original “Clash of the Titans” and assumed Bubo the metallic owl was a preposterous 1981 Cold War anachronism, you might be surprised to learn that metal or wooden fowl were the stuff of legend for ancient Greeks, as much as Medusa and Perseus were. Around the globe, stories from mythology, religious scripture, and apocryphal historical texts describe wondrous moving statues, incredible androids with leather organs, and mobile metallic animals—particularly in temples and royal courts—but it’s hard to sort fact from fiction.
For example, the Greek engineer Daedalus was said to have built human statues that walked by the magical power of “quicksilver” around 520 BCE, but it’s more likely the statues appeared to move through the power of his clever engineering. In “The Seventh Olympian,” 5th-century BCE Greek poet Pindar described the island of Rhodes as “The animated figures stand / Adorning every public street / And seem to breathe in stone, or / move their marble feet.”
Nor were automata a uniquely Western preoccupation. Around 500 BCE, King Shu in China is said to have made a flying wood-and-bamboo magpie (like Lu Ban’s bird a hundred years later, it was probably similar to a kite) and a wooden horse driven by springs, long before spring technology was perfected.
The Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum is credited with creating a wooden dove around 350 BCE that could flap its wings and fly 200 meters. It’s likely the device was connected to a cable and powered by a pulley and counterweight, but some have speculated it was animated by an internal system of compressed air or an early steam engine.
Besides the obvious connection to dolls and puppetry, automata were long connected to clock-making. In ancient times, that meant water-driven mechanisms, similar to fountains. The earliest timepiece, the clepsydra or water clock—developed as early as 1700s BCE and found in Babylonia, Egypt, and China—used the flow of water in or out of a bowl to measure time.
According to Mark E. Rosheim in his book, Robot Evolution, Greek inventor Ctesibius, also spelled Ktesibios, is thought of as the founder of modern-day automata. Around 280 BCE, and he started building water clocks that had moving figures, like an owl, and whose waterworks forced air into pipes to blow whistles. Essentially, he built the first cuckoo clock. Ctesibius also amused people with a hydraulic device that caused a fake blackbird to sing, as well as mechanical figures that appeared to move and drink.
The Morris Museum’s Jere Ryder explains that because none of these ancient devices survived, it’s hard to know how they worked. “The speaking heads or the talking animals might not have had articulated limbs,” he explains. “They were more like sculptures, which might have had water-driven pneumatic instruments to create guttural sounds of an animal. This could be accomplished by opening a sluice gate or tap so water could turn a wheel, which then turned cams on a cog that worked a bellows. Or perhaps a person, hidden out of sight, would talk through a tube. You’d be walking by this bronze or stone statue, and all of a sudden, realistic sounds would be emanating from it. The experience would have been magical, almost wizard-like. That’s why automata were sometimes regarded as witchcraft.”
According to historian Joseph Needham in his epic study of ancient Chinese engineering, Science and Civilisation in China, in the 3rd century BCE, Chinese engineers and mathematicians like Chang Hêng, who worked for the royal court, were focused on how to animate full-scale puppet shows. Han emperor Chhin Shih Huang Ti, as known as Qin Shi Huang, was said to have had a device that featured a band of a dozen 3-foot-tall bronze men that played real music, but it still required two unseen puppeteers to operate, one blowing into a tube for the sound and another pulling a rope for the movement.
Back in Greece, Ctesibius’ student, Philo (or Philon) of Byzantium, was a pioneer who advanced from pneumatics to steam-driven automata and other devices around 220 BCE, writing a book called Mechanike syntaxis. Only part of Philo’s work has survived. Unfortunately, the true depth of Greek and Roman engineering and the extent to which they employed steam power are unknown, as many records were destroyed in the centuries of wars after the fall of the Roman Empire.
The first real evidence of the ancient Greeks’ mechanical abilities was the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, dated between 205 and 60 BCE. This clock mechanism, which used 30 bronze gears and cams, is thought of as the first computer and may have been employed to operate automata.
The earliest full-length book of Greek robots that’s survived is On Automatic Theaters, on Pneumatics, and on Mechanics, written circa 85 CE, by the inventor Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria. In his treatise, Hero describes mechanical singing birds, robot servants that pour wine, and full-scale automated puppet theaters that employed everything from weights and pulleys to water pipes, siphons, and steam-driven wheels. Mostly, the automata executed simple, repetitive motions. Because Romans kept human slaves and servants to do hard labor and menial tasks, apparently no one thought to give robots actual work.
Since Hero’s writings left out certain details and didn’t include drawings, depictions of his machines still require a lot of guesswork, explains Rosheim in Robot Evolution. For example, the Hero automaton known as “Hercules and the Beast” has been drawn showing the legendary hunk shooting a snake with a bow and arrow and, alternately, depicting Hercules pounding a dragon with a club. What we do know is the action depended on water draining into hidden vessels that served as counterweights.
But progress on building robots in the Western World halted as the Roman Empire began to crumble around 117 CE. In the meantime, circa 3rd-7th century CE, according to Needham, the Chinese continued to develop elaborate puppet theaters with myriad figures of musicians, singers, acrobats, animals, and even government officials at work, which would move and make music. They were likely operated by water-driven wheels, and possibly underwater chains, ropes, or paddle wheels.
In the 600s, Chinese engineer Huang Kun, serving under Sui Yang Ti, described an outdoor mechanical puppet theater in the palace courtyards and gardens with 72 finely dressed figures that drifted on barges floating down a channel. To impress his guests, the emperor’s automata would stop to serve them wine. In Science and Civilization in China, Needham quotes Huang’s manual: “At each bend, where one of the emperor’s guests was seated, he was served with wine in the following way. The ‘Wine Boat’ stopped automatically when it reached the seat of a guest, and the cup-bearer stretched out its arm with the full cup. When the guest had drunk, the figure received it back and held it for the second one to fill again with wine. Then immediately the boat proceeded, only to repeat the same at the next stop. All these were performed by machinery set in the water.”
The Tu-Yang Tsa Pien (Miscellaneous Records from Tu-Yang) has this intriguing story of automata in 9th century China: “A guardsman, Han Chih-Ho, who was Japanese by origin … made a wooden cat which could catch rats and birds. This was carried to the emperor, who amused himself by watching it. Later, Han made a framework which was operated by pedals and called the ‘Dragon Exhibition.’ This was several feet in height and beautifully ornamented. At rest there was nothing to be seen, but when it was set in motion, a dragon appeared as large as life with claws, beard, and fangs complete. This was presented to the emperor, and sure enough, the dragon rushed about as if it was flying through clouds and rain; but now the emperor was not amused and fearfully ordered the thing to be taken away.”
Naturally, Han feared for his life. “Han Chih-Ho threw himself upon his knees and apologized for alarming his imperial master, offering to present some smaller examples of his skill. The emperor laughed and inquired about his lesser techniques. So Han took a wooden box several inches square from his pocket, and turned out from it several hundred ‘tiger-flies,’ red in color, which he said was because they had been fed on cinnabar. Then he separated them into five columns to perform a dance. When the music started they all skipped and turned in time with it, making small sounds like the buzzing of flies. When the music stopped they withdrew one after the other into their box as if they had rank. … The emperor, greatly impressed, bestowed silver and silks on him, but as soon as he had left the palace he gave them all away to other people. A year later he disappeared and no one could ever find him again.”
Around the same time, circa 800s-830s, the Khalif of Baghdad, Abdullah al-Manum, recruited three brothers known as Banū Mūsā to hunt down the Greek texts on mechanical engineering, including Hero’s On Automatic Theaters, on Pneumatics, and on Mechanics. The brothers wrote The Book of Ingenious Devices, which included both their own inventions, like an automatic flute player, and the ancient concepts they’d collected. The 9th century was something of a golden era of Muslim invention, with alchemists and engineers building impressive automata for Muslim rulers, including snakes, scorpions, and humans, as well as trees with metal birds that sang and flapped their wings. Around the same time, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII in Constantinople was said to have a similar tree as well as an imposing rising “throne of Solomon” guarded by two roaring-lion automata.
By the 11th century, India had automata, too. According to History of Indian Theatre by Manohar Laxman Varadpande, a book on architecture, Samarangana Sutradhara, written by Parmar King Bhoja of Malava, describes miniature wooden automata called “das yantra” that decorated palaces and could dance, play musical instruments, or offer guests betel leaves. Other yantra were put in the service of mythological plays and acted out everything from war-making to love-making. Similarly, small humanoid automata were employed in royal residences and temples in Egypt.
Building on the works of Banū Mūsā, in the 12th century, Muslim polymath Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari produced The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, with lushly colored illustrations of previously invented devices and his own novel inventions. It describes the mechanics of water clocks with moving figures, robot bands, and tabletop automata. For example, al-Jazari’s Peacock Fountain, designed to aid in royal hand-washing, relied on a series of water vessels and floats. According to Rosheim, the water poured from the jewel-encrusted peacock’s beak into a basin. As the water drained into containers under the basin, float devices triggered little doors where miniature-servant automata appeared in a sequence, the first offering soap, the second a towel. Turning another valve caused the servants to retreat.
The science of automata is thought to have re-emerged in Europe in the 13th century, thanks to the sketchbooks of the French artist Villard de Honnecourt, which describe several machines and automata such as singing birds and an angel that always turned to face the sun. De Honnecourt may have recorded some of the first jacquemarts, or “jacks-of-the-clocks,” automata activated to blow horns or strike bells on medieval-town clock towers. The Strasbourg Cock, built in France in 1352, features a prime example of the jacquemarts of this era: A rooster, one of 12 figures in rotation on an astronomical clock in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, would raise its head, flap its wings, and crow three times to announce its hour. In China, inventors continued to build more and more impressive water-wheel animated puppet theaters, as well as elaborate jacquemarts on their water clocks. But unfortunately, Joseph Needham explains, most records and examples of these mechanical advancements were destroyed by the conquering Ming Dynasty in 1368.
Besides clocks and puppet theaters, in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, automata were a key piece of aristocratic “pleasure gardens,” which were the equivalent of modern-day fun houses, filled with slapstick booby traps. In the late 13th century, the Count Robert II of Artois (1250-1302), commissioned the first known pleasure garden at Hesdin in France. Walking through the maze, the Count’s guest would be startled by statues that spat water at them, fun-house mirrors, a device that smacked them in the head, a wooden garden hermit and metallic owl that spoke, other mechanical beasts, a guard automata that gave orders and hit them, a collapsing bridge, and other devices that shot out or dumped water, soot, flour, and feathers.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, a handful of eccentric gardens with fountain automata popped up around modern-day Italy, Germany, and France, like the Villa d’Este at Tivoli near Rome, which featured elaborate fountains and grottos as well as hydraulic organs and animated birds. Perhaps inspired by Hesdin, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzberg (now in Austria), Markus Sittikus von Hohenems, built a prank-filled “water park” at Hellbrunn Palace in the 1610s with water-powered automata and music, where guests would be startled by statues that squirted water in their faces and chairs that shot water on their butts. In 1750, more than 100 years after Sittikus’ death, a water-driven puppet theater, with more than 200 busy townspeople automata, was installed at the estate.
On a smaller scale than the fountain-filled pleasure gardens were the Gothic table fountains of the 14th and 15th centuries, which were like miniature animated puppet theaters, showpieces thought to have come to Western aristocrats through Byzantine and Islamic trade. Dozens of figures on the fountain would dance, play music, or spout wine or perfumed water. It’s believed that most of these devices were made of precious metal and later melted down. The one surviving example, made around 1320 to 1340 and now housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, was a gift from the Duke of Burgundy to Abu al-Hamid II, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Up until the 15th century, automata technology had been hindered by the limitations of hydraulic, pneumatic, and weight- and steam-driven motion. That changed with the introduction of steel-spring clockwork mechanisms. Previously, engineers had experimented with using tightly wound metal springs to drive automata and timepieces, but the rudimentary metalwork meant the mechanism might only work right once before breaking. In the 15th and 16th centuries, technological advances made in the steel-working foundries in Nuremberg and Augsburg, Germany, and in Blois, France, were a major breakthrough.
“It wasn’t until the 1400s that Europeans had the sufficient metal refining and foundry techniques to produce a spring that wouldn’t self-destruct,” Morris Museum’s Jere Ryder says. “As time went on, they refined the process further, and the quality of their materials improved.”
Where metalworking flourished, so did horological, or clock-making, technology. Starting around the 1430s, clockmakers in Europe, particularly in Germany and France, were producing key-wound spring-driven clocks. They continued to develop and improve upon clock mechanics throughout the Renaissance, adding more and more elaborate decorative flourishes. In BBC Four’s “Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams,” science history professor Simon Schaffer explains that the time-keeping mechanism, which once needed a tower to contain it, got smaller and smaller until pocket watches could be made with tiny screws and gears that artisans meticulously hand-crafted.
“Clockmakers were usually the technicians making automata,” the Morris Museum’s Jere Ryder says. “They had the access to the materials; they knew the clockwork mechanisms; they knew the drive systems that would be required. They had all the basic metalworking and metallurgical skills and knowledge at their disposal.”
Unlike the whimsical jacquemarts seen on public clock towers, these robots were strictly for the entertainment of royalty and aristocrats, and were only produced by the most trusted court inventors and artisans. “You have to remember, quality metals were a precious commodity, and you had to have somebody of great importance in your region grant you the access to those materials,” Ryder says. “These metals weren’t available to the masses for fear that they would be used to make arms for insurgents to rise up against the aristocracy. As an inventor, you had to be trustworthy because you were getting a potentially dangerous raw substance in your workshop that you could turn into weapons, and that would be a detriment to your patron.”
Some inventors in the early 15th century were still conceptualizing automata through the older technologies of hand cranks and weights and pulleys. Giovanni (or Johannes) de Fontana produced a book of plans for animated monsters and devils that could spit fire, intended to debunk magicians. But it’s hard to say if Fontana successfully built any of these devices, which seem mechanically impractical and unlikely to work. In the mid-15th century, German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg, also known as Regiomontanus, is said to have built an iron mechanical fly and a wing-flapping eagle automata—possibly driven by clockwork—that accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor to the gates of Nuremberg, but there are no records of his designs for such machines.
Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks show a full-size clockwork lion, supposedly a present for King Francois I in the 1510s. Witnesses claimed the mechanical lion, a symbol of Florence, approached the king, opened a “heart cavity” on its side, and revealed a Fleur-de-Lis, the symbol of the French monarchy. Da Vinci’s lion has been lost to history, but a replica was constructed by automata-maker Renato Boaretto for Chateau du Clos Luce, in Amboise, France, in 2009. According to Robot Evolution author Mark E. Rosheim, da Vinci’s notebooks offer hints that he was working on an android, dressed in a suit of arms, using a system of pulleys and cables based on his drawing of human musculature, possibly operated by a manual hand crank, as many of da Vinci’s inventions were. However, it’s unclear if he ever built the android, as the relevant pages of his sketchbook are missing.
The writings of Hero of Alexandria were finally translated from Greek into Latin in the 16th century. French engineer Salomon de Caus studied the work of Hero religiously and replicated the hydraulic-pneumatic singing bird concept. Other inventors relied on new developments in wind-up spring technology. In the service of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Spain, Italian clockmaker Juanelo Turriano—also known as Gianello Della Tour of Cremona and Giovanni Torriani—made several miniature clockwork robots to entertain the easily bored emperor, from flying birds to soldiers to musicians.
“In the Renaissance, only royalty and aristocrats would be able to afford automata, which they’d commission to show that they were more powerful than their neighbors,” Ryder says. “There was a lot of one-upmanship going on at that time. The owner of automata could assert he was important because he could command these miniature lifelike pieces with amazing clockwork mechanisms to perform at will, anytime he wanted them to. At that time, that was probably pretty darn impressive.”
Although few clockwork automata from the 16th century have survived, we know that the artisans building these robots for royal entertainment had mastered wind-up technology to the point of re-creating the nuances of human movement and facial expressions, causing an “uncanny valley” effect. One remarkable surviving automaton from this era lives at the Smithsonian Institute. A 15-inch-tall key-wound clockwork Franciscan monk, built as early as 1560, possibly by Juanelo Turriano for Charles V, is a startling imitation of life. The friar walks in a square path, hitting his chest with his right arm, waving a cross and rosary with his left. He nods and turns his head, rolls his eyes, mouths silent prayers, and occasionally lifts his cross to kiss it.
“Underneath the robes, there’s a full clockwork mechanism,” Ryder says. “So you’d have to wind it up, and then he would move across the table with his little feet underneath the robe moving up and down. He really looks like he’s walking.”
Another surviving early clockwork automaton is a 1610 gilt bronze and silver timepiece in the moving form of the goddess Diana on her chariot. It was built for royalty by some unknown maker in Southern Germany, and is now housed at the Yale University Art Gallery. “The chariot’s being drawn across the table slowly by these undulating panthers in front,” Ryder explains. “There’s a monkey on the chariot moving his arm to eat a pomegranate, which is a sign of hospitality. Diana up top has a bronze bow and arrow loaded under tension, as the whole carriage goes down what would have been a large banquet table. It moves for almost 3 feet and stops, her eyes still scanning from side to side with the tick-tock sound, like she’s deciding who her next victim will be. Then, she launches the bronze arrow, and it flies about 6 to 8 feet. It’s a fabulous automaton.”
In the mid-17th century, German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher—the first to describe the automatic barrel organ operated by pinned cylinders—attempted to build a talking head with moving eyes, lips, and tongue, which may have been voiced by an operator talking through a tube. In his 1650 treatise, Musurgia Universalis, Kircher also detailed a barrel organ with an automaton cuckoo. Nineteen years later, Domenico Martinelli wrote a book on horology suggesting the cuckoo’s call be used to announce the hours. In 1730, the first so-called cuckoo clock was produced in the Black Forest. But these were not the first small German clocks with moving automata and sound to declare the hours: The Met Museum has a musical automata clock made by Velt Langenbucher and Samuel Bidermann in Augsburg more than 100 years earlier.
“The Augsburg timepiece has got these commedia dell’arte figures in a rotunda atop it,” Ryder says. “Each one turns as they waltz around, circling each other in what looks like a miniature mirrored home. Below the timepiece, there are two automatic musical instruments that play both independently and together in unison—one is a spinet, which is like a miniature harpsichord, and the other is a flute organ. It’s just an outstanding early Augsburg device that combines mechanical music and automata in the same package.”
The most incredibly intricate, full-sized robots were first built in the 1700s. French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson—an anatomy student who would later develop the predecessor to the Jacquard automatic loom—created a life-size human automaton called the Flute Player in 1737. Living in the Age of Enlightenment, Vaucanson wanted to figure out if human and animal bodies operated like machines. Modeled after a famous Antoine Coysevox sculpture of a shepherd, Vaucanson’s weight-driven android actually blew air from a series of connected pipes, bellows, and valves inside its body through its mouth into a flute. The robot also controlled the sound of the instrument by moving its lips and tongue and pressing its fingers—possibly covered with the leather of real human skin—on the holes, playing with a human level of artistic expression. This stunning machine could play more than 12 distinct tunes.
Vaucanson followed the Flute Player with another life-size android called the Drummer or the Tambourine Player, which played a pipe and a drum, and a bird automata called the Digesting Duck—unfortunately, all three have been lost to time. His crowd-pleasing duck device could quack, rise up on its legs, flap its wings, move its head, bow its neck, drink, eat, and defecate. Vaucanson, and the French entrepreneurs he later sold them to, took his automata on tour, letting members of the European elite pay a hefty fee to witness this buzzed-about anatomical spectacle. (In the 19th century, magician and clockmaker Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin claimed he encountered this duck automata and took it apart to discover the consumed grain and pooped-out breadcrumbs were in separate chambers, meaning, as brilliant as the device was, no actual “digesting” was involved.)
“Vaucanson held exhibitions in France and Italy that he would invite royalty to,” Ryder says. “Eventually, high-level aristocrats would be invited in, too. That’s how inventors like Vaucanson got money to help subsidize the next project. Those exhibitions weren’t for the masses because they couldn’t afford to get in.” In “Clockwork Dreams,” professor Simon Schaffer explains that, ironically, these robots spelled doom for the aristocrats who funded them. The notion that humans might just be soulless machines—and therefore, the monarchies didn’t have divine authority to subjugate their peasants—eventually led to uprisings against the European elite, like the French Revolution at the end of the century.
According to Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris during the Age of Revolution, by Paul Metzner, Vaucanson’s show-stopping demonstrations were so lucrative that 18th-century showmen, naturally, saw automata as a way to make it big. Mechanicians were commissioned to copy Vaucanson and make automata purely for entertainment, not science: These included flute, harpischord, and dulcimer players; singing birds; wine servers; and more. A French inventor and Catholic abbot named Mical was said to have made “an entire orchestra in which the figures, large as life, played music from morning till evening.”
Because the stage entrepreneurs were trying to make a buck, Metzner writes, some builders found ways to cut corners making figures now considered “quasi-automata” because they only gave the illusion of lifelike action. For example, with musician quasi-automata, the music was generated by an automatic organ in the base, and the figure only made the motions of playing the instrument. Singing birds were popular among aristocratic women, and they operated much the same way. Similarly, many showmen claimed to have automata that could write or draw, when in reality, they were showing a life-size puppet, or a “pseudo-automata,” whose pen was guided by a living person in a hidden compartment, operating a pantograph.
However, in the mid-18th century, German watchmaker Friedrich von Knauss did develop automata that could write and draw. Following in Vaucanson’s footsteps, Knauss first successfully built automata that could play music. Then he developed a machine with a hand that could use a quill to spell out “Huic Domui Deus / Nec metas rerum / Nec tempora ponat” (“May God not impose ends or deadlines on this house”) on a card. He also attempted to build four talking heads and failed. None of Knauss’ automata had full bodies.
In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a mechanician in Austria, created a life-size figure known as the Turk or the Chess Player, which was dressed as the Western stereotype of a man from Turkey. This spring-driven automated figure was positioned behind a large wheeled cabinet with a chess board affixed to the top. In his research, Metzner explains that for more than half a century, the Turk put on shows of what appeared to be an incredible display of artificial intelligence, regularly beating audience members at chess. But in the 1830s, it was revealed a man operating a pantograph had been hiding in the cabinet every time. However, Kempelen did have real engineering talent: He made significant advances in the concept of the steam engine, and he, along with Mical and Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, developed speaking machines in the 1770s.
Beside the Digesting Duck, another clockwork-fowl automaton that made a splash was the exquisite Silver Swan, built out of real silver by Belgian roller-skate inventor John Joseph Merlin and London clockmaker and showman James Cox in 1773. Today, you can watch this gorgeous moving artwork at the Bowes Museum in England: When wound up, the life-size swan, “floats” on a stream of twisting glass rods, which rotate to the automatic music. Operating with three separate clockwork mechanisms, the swan very elegantly turns to the left and right and preens. Then, it appears to notice a fish in the “water,” catch it in its beak, and swallow it.
Inspired by Vaucanson’s musicians, Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz made a clock topped by a flute-playing shepherd figure in the 1760s. Then, he and his assistants, including his adopted son, Jean-Frédéric Leschot, built three mind-bending spring-driven automata between 1768 and 1774—the Scribe, the Musician, and the Draughtsman. The Scribe looks like a life-size doll of three-year-old boy, and is still operational today. The child is sitting on a stool, holding a quill to a mahogany table. Wound up and given a piece of paper, the Scribe, whose mechanism is made up of nearly 6,000 parts and 40 distinct cams—can dip his quill into ink and write any sentence up to 40 characters long. (However, the programming is so time-consuming his sentence was rarely changed.) His eyes follow the writing with focus and intent. The Scribe is, in many ways, a predecessor to the modern computer.
The Musician is a full-size adolescent girl who plays a non-automatic organ by pressing the keys with her finger. She appears to watch her fingers, breathe, and adjust her body as a real organist would. The Draughtsman, like the Scribe, looks like a toddler boy, and is capable of producing four different drawings—a dog, a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple, and Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. He also fidgets in his chair and occasionally blows on his pencil. All three of these original automata can be seen in action today at Musée d’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
Jaquet-Droz and his sons toured the royal courts around Europe, China, India, and Japan, demonstrating the three automata to grow their watch-making business. These three blockbusting machines were generally not for sale, although a small number were reproduced for kings. The Jaquet-Droz family, like other watchmakers of the era, offered timepieces and miniature automata incorporated into clocks, watches, snuff boxes, perfume bottles, and jewelry to their moneyed clientele.
“In the mid- to late 1700s, Switzerland became a center of very fine, high-end automata,” Ryder says. “You had Pierre Jaquet-Droz, Henri Maillardet, and others who made these writing, drawing, and music-playing automata, as well as a wide range of pocket watches, musical perfume bottles with animated figures, and wind-up jewelry, like lockets, brooches, and rings with music and automata. Jaquet-Droz took his extraordinary large automata on the road as the showpieces that would draw future customers from the upper echelons of the aristocracy. The large automata caught the attention of the press, and wealthy people would pay to visit someone’s chateau to see them in action. But then Jaquet-Droz could sell his smaller wares to these same individuals.”
As much as it was good business, it was also a risky endeavor to pack up these delicate robots made of thousands of cams and gears, put them in carriages, and drive them thousands of miles. “When Jaquet-Droz went down to Madrid to sell to the king’s court, it took 30 days in transit to get there,” Ryder says. “This was high risk and on speculation, because not much of this stuff was sold before he made that trip. He hoped the king and his courtesans would want most of the wares he was bringing. If he didn’t sell it all, then he’d try zigzagging on his way home to try sell the remainder of it. Jaquet-Droz was extremely successful at doing that.”
Swiss clockmaker Henri Maillardet, an apprentice of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, built his own version of the Scribe called the Draughtsman-Writer, with the help of Pierre’s sons Henri Louis Jaquet-Droz and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, in 1800. Maillardet’s animated doll, which now lives at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, can write four poems and draw four sketches. Henri Maillardet’s brother Jean-David Maillardet—with the assistance of his son, Julien-Auguste, and his brother Jacques-Rodolphe—built an automata clock called the Great Magician featuring a conjurer and a set of nine plaques with predetermined questions. The machine can be seen in action today at the International Clock Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland: When you place a question in a drawer, the magician moves about before a window opens, revealing the answer. Questions include “A rare thing? (A friend)” and “What is too easily given? (Advice)”.
Around the same time as Jaquet-Droz’s and Maillardet’s automata advances, engineers in Edo Period Japan were building table-top, tea-serving robots, servant dolls with perhaps a little more labor-saving functionality than European robots, which were meant to astonish. Once set in motion, a 14-inch-tall “karakuri” powered by a whale-baleen spring moves toward a guest holding a cup of tea with its head bowed. After the cup is lifted, the robot seems to wait patiently for the guest to drink. When the cup is replaced, the doll makes a 180-degree turn and moves in the opposite direction.
In 1790s India, a life-size musical automata of a tiger mauling a white European flat on his back was built for the Tipu Sultan (also spelled Tippu or Tippoo), who hated the British colonizers and, specifically, the East India Company. Tipu’s Tiger is 5-foot-8-inches long, constructed of wood, and contains a playable 18-note pipe organ. When a handle is cranked, the man emits a wail, the tiger seems to growl, and the man’s left arm flails up and down. When the East India Company invaded Tipu’s land in the 1799, the automaton was shipped to England, where, ironically, it became a popular curiosity.
At the turn of the 19th century, German inventor and showman Johann Nepomuk Maelzel became obsessed with collecting and demonstrating the marvels of automata and mechanical music. First, he developed an automatic organ that replicated the sounds of a 40-member orchestra, which he called a Panharmonicon (later classified as an orchestrion). Then, as Paul Metzner explains in Crescendo of the Virtuoso, Maelzel purchased the pseudo-automaton, the Turk, and built a real automaton trumpet player, a real automaton acrobat, and other androids, including talking dolls that spoke one word each. Later, he bought a Draughtsman-Writer by the Jaquet-Droz family. In the early 19th century, he toured the United States with his automata, making a big impression on famous showman P.T. Barnum.
What do all of these machines have in common? They’re all illusions of some sort, which made them natural fits for the magic shows that were growing in popularity in the 19th century. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin—the French magician and inventor Houdini named himself after—built several automata for his 1840s stage shows including a magician, a writer-draftsman, a trapeze acrobat, a singing nightingale, and clowns. Robert-Houdin was also famous for a device that appears to be an orange tree that blooms and produces real fruit in a matter of minutes. But his true creative contribution to automata were three different devices, each featuring a woman and a canary. At the time, it was popular among high-society ladies to have a pet canary and to use an automatic organ called a serinette to teach the bird tunes. In Robert-Houdin’s scenes, the automata women play the serinette multiple times while the automata bird appears to be learning, getting better at the song with each go-round. Other European magicians of the era incorporated automata into their stage shows as well, one even going so far as to steal from Robert-Houdin.
In 1845, German American immigrant Joseph Faber completed his Euphonia, the most impressive talking head yet, a device with a disembodied female head attached to bellows. Demonstrated decades before the telephone, the phonograph, and the wax cylinder were introduced, this automata could speak in multiple languages through the operation of 16 keys assigned a basic sound used in European languages, plus a 17th key that controlled its mechanical glottis.
The Industrial Revolution in France paved the way for the trend of automata as parlor entertainment for adults, starting in the mid-19th century. Until then, larger automata were hand-built to impress royalty while most aristocrats could only afford smaller hand-crafted automata trinkets. The rise of the middle class meant more Europeans were wealthy enough to purchase automata devices to entertain guests at their homes, and advances in manufacturing meant parts for these clockwork robots could be produced and assembled like never before—particularly around Paris, which had the perfect mix of material resources, technology, and skilled craftsman to make these moving works of art. Thus, 1860 to 1910 is known as “The Golden Age of Automata,” and the bulk of the Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum comes from this time period.
“That’s when you saw the very well-known Parisian manufacturers, like Gustave Vichy, Eduoard-Henry Phalibois, Blaise Bontems, Jean Roullet, and his Roullet & Decamps firm, making automata for the middle class,” Ryder says. “At high-end department and toy stores like Au Nain Bleu in Paris, you’d see these exotic, extravagant amusements—toys that really weren’t meant for children. They were aimed at the adult population that was doing the Grand Tour of Europe in the Belle Époque and wanted to go home with a unique souvenir of the region they were visiting. If you visited Switzerland, the country was then internationally known for its timepieces, so you’d buy a clock or watch. The Swiss were also known for their music boxes, invented in 1796, which were manufactured hardly anywhere else, so you might get a music box. But Paris was one of those few places in the world that had the necessary convergence of talent, material, and technology to make automata.
“Parisian manufacturers made up probably 80 percent of the automata market in the late 19th century. There were a few other makers in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia doing something similar, but nowhere near the scale of the half-dozen top Parisian manufacturers.”
The reason Paris became the hotbed of 19th-century automata is that it had gifted artisans in nearly every creative field, as clock-making and mechanical-engineering were not the only skills required to build beautiful automata. Indeed, no one artisan could do it alone.
“So many skills were necessary to create pieces like these,” says Guinness Collection curator Michele Marinelli. “You needed to know metalworking. You needed to be able to create the cams that generate the motion of the piece and the spring motor that drives it. Automata also required other materials like textiles, which is why wives often partnered with their husbands and sewed the costumes for the pieces. Some pieces used materials we would consider exotic, such as tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, furs, feathers, and animal skins, so you would need someone who was skilled in using these materials. It often took multiple people, each working on their specific part, before an automaton could be assembled by the builder, who put his name on it.”
The Parisian automata, like the machines in the Guinness collection, are products of their time, Marinelli explains, when members of the new middle class had the time and money to travel, collect curiosities, and indulge in various amusements. For example, in the first half of the 19th century, circuses and animal menageries were popular attractions, as were taxidermied-filled oddity museums like the American Museum in New York City. After the Civil War ended in 1864, zoological parks and natural history museums began to open in the United States. The anatomy of animals and how they moved were great fascinations.
“Animal figures were very popular as automata,” Marinelli says. “They were often used in animated scenes that showed the creatures exhibiting some kind of humanity or in scenes that told specific stories. Victorians loved animals to the point they stuffed and mounted them, including their dead pets. With many of the singing-bird automata from the era, you’re looking at a real bird that had lived and died. Sometimes the animals with real fur look creepy, and not entirely realistic.”
Monkeys, in particular, appear in many Parisian automata. They’re generally wearing lace collars and fancy velvet dress and engaging in genteel activities. “Think about what happened a hundred years prior to this time period—the French Revolution,” Marinelli says. “When you see a monkey automata dressed like that, the makers are mocking the French aristocracy. It’s a political statement.”
Thanks to all the circuses and pantomimes, clowns were also popular figures. “We have a lot of different clowns in the Guinness collection, performing tricks or things like that,” Marinelli says. “We have a couple Pierrots, which is one of the stock characters from commedia dell’arte—one is sitting on a moon, playing a mandolin. Another Pierrot is sitting at a desk, writing a letter to his love, Columbine.
“Some of them are quite fantastical,” she continues. “We have a clown illusionist by Phalibois who appears to lose his head. We have several other conjurers or magicians. You know the cup-and-ball game, where you lift the cup and there’s a ball underneath, and then when you look under it again, the ball is gone? We have automata that do that. People who see them are amazed.”
Other pieces seem to depict ordinary Victorians engaging in mundane tasks, like dusting parlors or snapping photographs. One of Guinness’ oldest pieces is a chicken that walks, pauses, and lays an egg. “Every automaton tells a story,” Marinelli says. “In a brief moment, it imparts a lot of information to a viewer.”
While these automata delight children, some of them are not exactly G-rated. “We have a chef automata called the Cuisinière,” Marinelli says. “It’s based on a French nursery rhyme, ‘Le mère Michel’ (‘The mother of Michel the cat’). The chef’s holding a copper pot in one hand. In the other hand, he’s holding a bottle of booze. The chef was having an affair with the lady of the house. Eventually, she rejected him, and he knew there was something that she loved more than him. With this automaton, you see he’s drinking away his sorrows and taking his revenge on her. The lid of the pot rises and a cat pops up. He’s cooking her beloved cat! Of course, if we’re demonstrating that piece when children are present, we modify the story. But kids think it’s hilarious that there’s a cat in the pot.”
Victorians were also fascinated with people from other cultures, but often reduced them to exoticized clichés. “Many of these pieces represent stereotypes and inaccurate information about non-Western cultures,” Marinelli says. “We have a beautiful 3-foot-tall figure called the Mask Seller. If you look closely, you see she’s a Chinese woman wearing Japanese clothing. Again, you’re seeing the perceptions of the Belle Époque Europeans and their Euro-centric understanding of the world.”
The Golden Age of Automata was a time of head-spinning mechanical developments that might feel familiar to us in the Internet Age. Photography, for example, was first introduced in the 1840s. A well-to-do family in the early 1800s might entertain guests with “moving pictures” in zoetropes or by playing songs on giant pinned-cylinder machines known as orchestrions, which could replicate the sounds of an entire orchestra.
By the 1860s, windup clockwork technology was being employed on a smaller scale for children’s toys, made out of stamped-and-lithographed tin by German companies Bing and Märklin. Other toy makers produced mechanical banks whose cast-iron figures were set into motion by depositing a coin. In the 1870s and 1880s, telephones, light bulbs, automobiles, phonographs, and fingered machines that could play pianos were all introduced, as factory workers spent their Sundays at trolley parks where they could ride carousels to the loud sounds of automatic band organs, which often featured quasi-automata musicians.
The 1890s saw the introduction of player pianos and Edison’s amazing talking doll. Coin-operated vending had evolved into slot machines and coin-operated Mutoscopes and Kinetoscopes that let one person watch short, sometimes sexy, little movies. By the turn of the century, ice-cream parlors and saloons drew customers with coin-operated orchestrions, barrel organs, and player pianos.
Around 1905, penny arcades started to pop up around the United States, many of which featured automata acting out scenes that would be animated by dropping a coin in a slot, as well as coin-op music machines. Some of the most famous coin-op automata of this era include fortune-teller machines like Zoltar and the towering Laffing Sal, which was first made in the 1920s and is thought to be the inspiration for the animatronics you see at Disney theme parks and in Chuck E. Cheese restaurants. Musée Mecanique in San Francisco has a large collection of such early 20th-century coin-op machines.
“The development of coin-operated musical instruments and automata was driven by the vending machine industry, which began in the latter half of the 19th century,” Marinelli says. “Business owners would lease music machines from the manufacturers, who would come to change the music selections, and of course, those companies took half the nickels. But it was worth it for the store owners, because the music brought people in. At the time, there were no jukeboxes or radios, so mechanical music was an amazing experience for customers.
“We have a machine that dates to about 1925, a self-playing violin-piano combination called the Violano Virtuoso, that plays beautifully,” she continues. “It’s electrically powered and, for a nickel, it will play the next song on the 10-song roll. We also have a couple pieces of automata that are coin-operated. One is called the Whistler, which is a boy about 3-foot-tall. He’s inside a glass case, and when you put in a nickel, he whistles a tune for you, so you get both the music and the animation.”
When electronic robots were developed in the 20th century, becoming both reviled and beloved characters in science-fiction, their characteristic stiff, mechanical movement represented a step backward in terms of creating an illusion of life. Even clockwork tin toys regressed, as they were made to imitate the rigid, metallic robots seen in B movies.
“With a real automaton—from the Jaquet-Droz pieces from the late 1700s on through to the Parisian Golden Age between 1850 and 1890—when you wind it up and turn it on, it has an extremely lifelike articulation of movement,” Ryder says. “It’s not jerky, it’s fluid, and so real it’s eerie. It’s only in the last maybe 10 years or so that electronics and processing power can replicate that kind of human fluidity. Old robot tech was better than any new robot tech until very recently.”
Rejecting the Cold War sci-fi mania, in the 1970s, British artists like Sue Jackson, Ron Fuller, Peter Markey, and Paul Spooner began to build old-school automata of animals and humans that were often made of wood and operated by clockwork and hand crank. In 1979, Jackson organized the group into a London collective called Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, which was responsible for a revived interest in automata in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, dystopian science fiction like “Blade Runner” and “Battlestar Galactica” imagined dark futures where artificially intelligent, rebellious robots would be ubiquitous and almost indistinguishable from actual humans. But today, as scientists are developing robots with artificial intelligence for masses, these machines are shedding their humanoid bodies entirely to live in little boxes, like Siri and Alexa do.
Has the dream of re-creating humanity died? Even in the 19th century, German physicist Herman von Helmholtz mused that, for the Gilded Age capitalists bankrolling automation, it was much more efficient to replace human laborers with single-function robots. “Nowadays we no longer attempt to construct beings able to perform a thousand human actions,” Helmholtz wrote, “but rather machines able to execute a single action which will replace that of thousands of humans.”
In spite of these developments, humanoid and animal-like robots are still built and widely adored today. In 2018, the second AutomataCon at the Morris Museum drew more than 300 people, showcasing real, physical androids in all their varied forms—from hand-cranked, hand-carved wooden automata to electronic robots with microprocessors. The makers comprised everyone from woodworkers, jewelers, and steam punks to academics and computer programmers. “The attendees ranged from gray-haired 80-year-olds to little kids participating in our Build Your Own Automata workshop,” Ryder says.
While it’s unlikely we’re ever going to live in a world full of anarchic Replicants or Cylons, androids and other automata serve almost exactly the same purpose today as they did in the 18th and 19th centuries—to astonish and amuse the people who have the privilege of encountering them.
(To learn more about the Golden Age of Automata, visit the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)