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ancient automata
15th–17th Century
18th Century
19th Century


History of automata


18th century automata


This period, which was dominated by scientific spirit, and by the biomechanical conception of the human being, corresponds to the birth of numerous artificial creatures which were intended to be exact replicas or copies of nature. Androids and mechanical animals were manufactured by watchmaking technicians who were very interested in medicine and natural sciences. They did not aim at entertaining but rather at contributing to the progress of science. They surrounded themselves with doctors and surgeons to elaborate the different artificial organs. The results were impressive. Many androids of great complexity and designed with real functions were created: writers, draftsmen and musician automatons. This philosophy also gave birth to artificial animals. Their behaviour simulated almost perfectly the animal world: peacocks, insects, dogs, swans, frogs, elephants, crayfishes and ducks made up, among others, the bestiary of these creator-zoologists. The greatest creators of automatons at that time were: Maiilard, Vaucanson, Friedrich von Knauss, Baron von Kempelen, Pierre and Louis Jaquet-Droz, Abbot Mical, and Kintzing.

Some examples are: Maillard (in 1731) made extensive use of gearing and cogs to produce automata of horses that worked by turning a handle. Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) produced some of the most famous historical automata and is regarded by many as one of the greatest automata makers of all time. His most famous work, called ‘The Duck’, was and artificial duck made of gilded copper which ate and drank (it even digested its food like a living duck), quacked and splashed about in water. Vancanson also made the flute and tabor players. The flute player was 5ft 10in tall (1.8 m) and stood on a pedestal. A current of air led through the complex mechanism causing the the lips and fingers of the player to move naturally on the flute, opening and closing hotes on the instrument. It had a repertoire of twelve tunes. Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) was brilliant mathematitian who specialised in applied mechanics and horology. With the help of his son and adopted son he produced three automata which, even toda,y are considered wonders of science and mechanical engineering. ‘The Writer’, ‘The Draughtsman’ and ‘The Musician’ still exist in the museum of Art and History in Switzerland. The Writer can be programmed to write up to 40 letters, dipping his pen into the ink and writing each letter clearly; he even dots the i and crosses the t. The Draughtsman can draw four pictures and even blows the graphite off the page. The Musician plays an organ, depressing the keys of her instrument with her fingers whilst moving the upper part of her body in a life-like manner, and bows at the end of the performance.

The Jaquet-Droz automata

The Jaquet-Droz automata.

Tippoo's (Tipu's Tiger). an automaton of a tiger attacking a man, was originally made for Tipu Sultan in Mysore, ca. 1795. The operation of a crank handle powered several different mechanisms inside Tippoo's Tiger. A set of bellows expellled air through a pipe inside the man's throat. This produced a wailing sound. A mechanical link caused the man's left arm to rise and fall. This action altered the pitch of the 'wail pipe'. Another mechanism inside the tiger's head expelled air through two pipes producing a sound simulating the roar of the tiger. Concealed behind a flap in the tiger's flank was a small ivory keyboard; depressing these keys expellled air through a series of organ pipes.

The Japanese Karakuri tradition has recently become better known in the western world. The word 'Karakuri' means a mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise. The Japanese Karakuri puppets utilise subtle, abstract movements to invoke feeing and emotion. There are three main categories of Karakuri. ‘Butai Karakuri’ are puppets used in the theatre, ‘Zashiki Karakuri’ are small and can be played with in rooms and ‘Dashi Karakuri’ puppets perform on wooden floats used in religious festivals. Traditionally Karakuri appeared in religious festivals, performed re-enactments of traditional myths and legends and entertained the public with their sophisticated, symbolic and graceful gestures.

Tea-serving karakuri

Tea-serving karakuri, with mechanism, 19th century. Tokyo National Science Museum.


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