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The following is a short description of the history of automata. It can be broken down into 3 rough time frames, Ancient History, 15th-19th Century and Modern times.


The first Automata was created by GOD. According to Talmundic tradition, Adam was created in 5 hours. In the first, his dust was gathered from all parts of the world; In the second, it was kneaded into a shapeless mass (Golem); In the third, his limbs were shaped; In the fourth, a soul was infused into him; In the fifth, he arose and stood on his feet.
"And God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Genesis. Chapter II.

Mythology has many stories about automata, some a wild and fanciful, others may have been based on fact. We can not say for sure what is fact or fiction, so what follows is a description of some of the more exciting reference to mythological automata which are based on accounts from the Ancient Greeks.

Prometheus was reputed to have made the first man and women on earth, with clay animated by fire and stolen from heaven. According to Apollodorus.

Hephaestus God of all mechanical arts, also known as Vulcan, God of life was reputed to have made two female statues of pure gold which assisted him and accompanied him wherever he went. Living young damsels, filled with minds and wisdom. LLiad (Book 18).
Hephaestus was also accredited with making Talus, a giant made from brass,which guarded Crete against intruders. Talus dispensed of his victims by heating up his body and hugging them to death. His only vulnerable spot was his right ankle where there was a sinew of flesh and a vein of blood. The Argonauts could only land on Crete after Talus was destroyed through the intervention of Medea.

Pygmation King of Cyprus fell in love with a beautiful statue which he had made and marries her after Aphrodite brings her to life.

The Ancient Greeks were clearly obsessed with the notion of creating mechanical living beings. We do know that they had very advanced engineering skills and most certainly managed to make partially animated Statues which would be used in Ceremonies. They were probable worked by levers and human powered, although there are descriptions of using steam and water as a source of power. The Greeks certainly had the technology and ingenuity to have used steam powered devises. Descriptions of wonderful mechanical people and objects not only came out of mythology but also other cultures from around the world. There seems to have been a common ambition to emulate living things through out the whole of the ancient world. The following is a description of some of the more intriguing ones.

15th century BC
Amenhotep son of Hapu had made a statue of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, near Thebes in Egypt, which uttered a melodious sound when struck by the the suns rays in the morning and during sunset. It was suggested that a divine power was partly responsible as the mechanisms were far to simple to sustain the noise.

Athanasias Kircher's drawings of Memons mechanisms and those of a bird which was also activated by the rising sun.

520 BC
Daedalus was a prolific and very cleaver inventor of ancient times accredited with the axe, the level and numerous other mechanical devices. He was reputed to have made statues that were worked by quicksilver and had the ability to walk. A more creditable description is of stone statues that seemed to breath in or move their marble feet. Given Daedalu's proven abilities he certainly was capable of inventing and making some form of mechanical statue. Which no doubt would have seamed fantastic to the ordinary people of the day.

500 BC
King-shu of china had made a flying magpie constructed out of wood and bamboo. He also had a wooden horse worked by springs.

400 BC
Archytas of Tarentum made a wooden pigeon suspended from the end of a pivot which was rotated by a jet of water or steam. The pigeon simulated flight. Archytas is the alleged inventor of the screw and the pulley. Again given his abilities it seems likely that he did invent a mechanical pigeon.

280 BC
Ctesibius experimented with natural pressures of air and pneumatic principals which he applied to automata making what was described as "contrivances and amusing things of many kinds that have been found to be pleasing to the eye and the ear". Ctesibius most notable automate was a blackbird that sang by means of waterworks and figures that drank and moved. Ctesibius is probably the founder of whet we now think as modern day automata, objects that please or amuses us and certainly the first forms of kinetic art. Unfortunately we don't know the full extent of the automata the he made. But its their purpose as pieces of work to amuse that is so interesting and unusual at this time in history.

Philon of Byzantium took the principals of pneumatics used by the Egyptians to power many of his mechanical devises. He was also interested in steam and is reputed to have introduced the use of fire and steam as a means of producing motion.

There is a fascinating amount of material about these early automata and there inventors. It is well worth looking up and exploring in more depth their work and inventions. The early Greeks had devised some fantastic devises that would not be developed for a further 2 thousand years. If history had been different and not so turbulent in those early years it seems likely we would have seen steam driven transport emerging, such as boats and even cars.


15th - 18th Century
Allthough there had a been a steady trickle of automata being produced from ancient times until the 15th century it is not until about the 1400 hundreds that we see some truly remarkable and substantiated automata being produced. This next section takes a brief look at a few of the most notable ones.

Johannes Muller was reputed to have made and artificial eagle. It flew to greet the Emperor Maximillian on his entry into Nuremberg in 1470, whilst some distance from the city, then returned to perch on top of a city gate and saluted the emperor on his arrival, by stretching its wings and bowing.

Leonardo da Vinci made a lion in honour of king Louis XII. It advanced towards him, stopped, opened its chest with a claw and pointed to the fleur-de-lis coat of arms of France. It is possible that Leonardo may have made other automata but records are very sketchy.

Gianello della tour of Cremona To alleviate the boredom of the emperor Charles the V, Della Tour made several automata. The most notable one was a lute player that walked either in a straight line or a circle, while plucking the strings and turning her head from side to side. He also made mechanical figures of flying birds and articulated soldiers who blew trumpets, beat drums and fought on the table top.

Salomon de Caus studied the automata form ancient times and worked a lot with water as a means of power and to help produce bird movement and sounds. A notable piece of work was an automata that had a singing bird, when a mechanical owl was placed on a rock the song stoped.

Christiaan Huygens made many automata for the royal court and the king of France. In 1680 he was ordered to make a machine showing a whole army fighting. He also produced figures of artisans imitating characteristic movements of their trade.

Maillard Produced quite sophisticated automata the made extensive use of gearing and cogs wheels to produce automata of horses that worked by turning a handle.

Jacques de Vaucanson 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 drank, ate, quacked, splashed about in water and digested its food like a living duck. Vancanson also made the flute and tabor players. The flute player was 5ft 10in tall (1.8m) 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 holes on the instrument. It had a repertoire of twelve tunes. People could not believe that the sounds of the flute were made by the automata, instead thinking that bellows or some other devise was making the sound. Spectators were invited to see the mechanism and internal details. They could also feel the breath coming from the lips of the flute player and see the fingers determining the notes.

Pierre Jaquet-Doz was brilliant mathematition who specialised in applied mechanics and horology. With the help of his son and adopted son he produced three automata which even today are considered wonders of science and mechanical engineering. The Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician still exist and are in the museum of Art and History in Switzerland. The writer can be programed 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.

Tipu's Tiger was made by the son of Sultan. Tipu's enemy was savaged by his favourite creature, the tiger. The automata is made of wood and contains a miniature organ. The movement is limited to the movement of the soldiers arm whilst the tiger growls.

Joseph Faber took 25 years to make his famous automata Euphonia. The automata produced sounds similar to the human voice. It started by reciting the letters of the alphabet and then said "How do you do ladies and gentlemen". It asked and answered questions, whisper, sang and laughed. The mechanisms could be inspected. It even spoke in an German accent as it talked in English but was made by a German speaking Austrian. Every one that inspected the mechanism was satisfied that the automata made the sounds and not a ventriloquist.

George Moore made a steam powered man that worked from a gas-fired boiler. It reached a walking speed of 9 miles an hour.

A lot of interesting automata were made and perfected in the 19th century. It was a prolific and golden era for automata. It was also a time when mass production techniques meant that automata could be made cheaply and easily and it is around this time that we see the automata becoming more of a child's toy rather than an expensive adult parlour amusement. It is from this time on that mechanical toys took over and although they were to survive well into the 20th century it is sadly now a thing of the past. Modern expectations of children and safety legistration have lead to the demise of the clock work tin toy.

Modern Times

We now see Automata emerging as a modern art form. Sold as specialist pieces ranging from a few pounds to several Hundred. The artists and craftsmen of modern times are now the leading producers of automata. Modern school curriculums have given many thousands of students the opportunity to make their own piece of Kinetic art under the heading of Design and Technology. Today there is a great deal of interest in automata. Early examples fetch some of the highest prices in auctions. They are considered by many antique collectors to be the most valuable accusation you can make. The art of animating the human form still fascinates us. Many modern toys now use electric motors and plastic gears to achieve this goal but the mechanical principles behind them go back thousands of years.
If you look in specialist art magazines you will see exhibitions showing of the skills of the modern automata makers.

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