The definition of an automaton is based on the principle of a self-operated machine, designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations or able to respond to determined instructions.

Historically, it is more common used to describe non-electronic self moving machines, especially those that have been made to resemble human or animal actions, such jacks on old public striking clocks or the famous cuckoo clocks.

The book About automata by Hero of Alexandria (1589 edition) Photo credit: Wikipedia

There are many examples of automata in Greek mythology : Hephaestus created automata for his workshop; Talos was an artificial man of bronze; Daedalus used quicksilver to install voice in his moving statues; King Allinous of the Phaiakians employed gold and silver watchdogs.

The automata in the Hellenistic world were intended to be as tools, toys or prototypes with demonstration purposes to show how basic scientific principles work. Numerous water powered automata were built by Ktesibios, a prominent Greek inventor and the first head of the Great library of Alexandria for example used water to sound a whistle and make a model owl to move. This tradition continued in Alexandria with inventors such as the Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria (sometimes known as Heron), whose writings on hydraulics, pneumatics, mechanics and described siphons, a fire engine , a water organ, the aeolipile and a programmable cart.

Complex mechanical devices are known to have existed in Hellenistic Greece, though the only surviving example is the amazing Antikythera mechanism, a well known device which is attributed to be the first analog computer. It is thought that this mechanism come originally from Rhodes, where there was apparently a strong tradition of mechanical engineering and manufacturing in the era.

The Antikythera mechanism from 150–100 BC was designed to calculate the positions of astronomical objects. Photo credit: Wikipedia

In the mid-8th century, the first wind powered automata were built: “statues that turned with the wind over the domes of the four gates and the palace complex of the Round City of Baghdad”. The “public spectacle of wind-powered statues had its private counterpart in the ‘Abbasid palaces where automata of various types were predominantly displayed.

Also in the 8th century, the Muslim alchemist Abir Hayyan, included recipes for constructing artificial snakes, scorpions and humans that would be subject to their creator’s control in his coded Book of Stones. In 827, Caliph Al-Mamunn had a silver and golden tree in his palace in Baghdad, which had the features of an automatic machine. There were metal birds that sang automatically on the swinging branches of this tree built by Muslim inventors and engineers.

The Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir also had a golden tree in his palace in Baghdad in 915, with birds on it flapping their wings and singing.[18] In the 9th century, the Banu Misa brothers invented a programmable automatic flute player and which they described in their Book of ingenious devices (You can see our featured article in our page about it, for reference).

Automata representation featured in the 2011 acclaimed movie “The invention of Hugo Cabret” Selznick’s novel was inspired to incorporate an automaton into the story from the book titled Edison’s Eve: A Magical Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood which has a chapter on Georges Méliès’ collection of automaton.

Al-Jazari described quite complex programmable humanoid automata among other devices he designed and constructed in the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices in 1206. Some of his creations was a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to play the role of entertainers at royal events with a mechanism enabled with a programmable drum machine with pegs that bump into little levers to operate. The drummer could be programmed to play different rhythms if the pegs were manipulated.

Al-Jazari constructed also a hand washing automaton employing the flush mechanism now used in modern toilets. It features a female automaton standing by a basin filled with water and when the user pulls the lever, the water drains and the automaton refills the basin. His “peacock fountain” was another more sophisticated hand washing device featuring humanoid automata as servants who offer soap and towels. All in all, Al-Jazari appears to have been the first inventor to display an interest in creating human-like machines for practical purposes such as manipulating the environment for human comfort or entertainment.

Diagram of a hydro-powered perpetual flute from the book of knowledge of ingenious mechanical devices by Al-Jazari in 1206. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Renaissance witnessed a considerable revival of interest in automata. Hero’s treatises were edited and translated into Latin and Italian. Giovanni Fontana created mechanical devils and rocket-propelled animal automata. Numerous clockwork automata were manufactured in the 16th century, principally by the goldsmiths of the Free Imperial Cities of central Europe. These wondrous devices found a home in the cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammern of the princely courts of Europe. Hydraulic and pneumatic automata, similar to those described by Hero of Alexandria, were created for garden grottoes.

Leonardo da Vinci sketched a more complex automaton around the year 1495. The design of Leonardo’s Robot was not rediscovered until the 1950s. The robot could, if built successfully, move its arms, twist its head and sit up.

Model of Leonardo’s robot with inner workings, on display in Berlin. Photo Credit: Erik Möller.

The Smithsonian Institution has in its collection a clockwork monk possibly dating as early as 1560. The monk is driven by a key-wound spring and walks the path of a square, striking his chest with his right arm, while raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. It is believed that the monk was manufactured by Juanelo Turriano, mechanician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The “Monkbot” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.

A new attitude towards automata is to be found in Descartes when he suggested that the bodies of animals are nothing more than complex machines where the bones, muscles and organs could be replaced with cogs, pistons and cams. France in the 17th century was the birthplace of those ingenious mechanical toys that were to become prototypes for the engines of the Industrial revolution . Thus, in 1649, when Louis XIV was still a child, an artisan named Camus designed for him a miniature coach and horses complete with footmen, page and a lady within the coach; all these figures exhibited a perfect movement and synchronization.

The world’s first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be The Flute Player, invented by the French engineer Jaucques de Vaucanson in 1737. He also constructed the Digesting duck, a mechanical representation that gave the falillusion of eating and defecating, seeming to endorse Cartesian ideas that animals are no more than machines of flesh.

The Tambourine Player, the Duck and the Flute Player created by Jacques de Vaucanson in a 18th-century plate from J. de Vaucanson, Le mécanisme du fluteur automate présenté à messieurs de l’Académie royale des sciences,‎ Paris, Jacques Guérin, 1738

In 1769, a chess-playing machine called the Turk, created by Wolfgang Von Kempelen, made the rounds of the courts of Europe promoting automaton. The Turk was operated from inside by a hidden human director and was not a true automaton.

The “Turk” replica made in the 1980’s

Other 18th century automaton makers include the prolific Swiss Pierre Jacquet Droz and his contemporary Henri Maillardet. Maillardet, a Swiss mechanic, created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems.

The famous magician Harry Houdini was known for creating automata for his stage shows.

Harry Houdini Ad, featuring the Automaton.

Contemporary automata continue this tradition with an emphasis on art, rather than technological advancements, anyway this evolution represent how this art and technology paved the road for the modern robotics, physics on movement and the way mechanics can serve people for many purposes with automated devices. There are represented by the works of the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in the UK or Le Defenseur du Tempsby French artist Jacques Monestier, and François Junod in Switzerland.


Author: Jesus Padilla

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