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automata Mythical, manlike monsters permeate the folklore of all cultures, and the dream of building an artificial man has long captured the Western imagination — witness Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Such concerns form part of a wider fascination with mechanical toys and gadgets at large. Automata in general inspire interest by their visual appeal, being intended to induce wonder and astonishment through the magic of their movement; androids in particular are figures in human form designed to walk, talk, play music, write, or draw or perform other distinctive actions.

Few automata constructed before the sixteenth century have survived, but their existence is recorded. Among the earliest was a wooden version of a pigeon, built by Archytas of Tarentum (fl. 400–350 bc), a friend of Plato. The bird apparently hung from a pivoted bar, and the complete mechanism rotated by means of a jet of air or steam. Fuller information about similar contraptions is found in the works of Hero of Alexandria (fl. first century ad), who recounted devices moved by falling weights, steam, and water.

Reports of Chinese automata date from the Han dynasty (third century bc), when a mechanical orchestra was apparently constructed for the Emperor. By the Sui dynasty (sixth and seventh centuries ad) automata had become familiar. From the T'ang period (seventh to the tenth century ad), there are accounts of flying birds and characters that executed sundry activities, ranging from girls singing to a monk begging. In the Moslem world various inventors were active from the ninth century; best-documented are the water-operated automata — for instance, models of moving peacocks — devised by al-Jazari (thirteenth century).

In Christendom, Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus have been credited with constructing androids — in Bacon's case, a talking head, and in Albertus', and iron man. In the Renaissance fresh concern was devoted to the making of automata. Sophisticated fountains involving sensational and secret effects became fashion-able among the nobility, e.g. the mid-sixteenth-century waterworks and fountains erected in the gardens of the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, near Rome.

The use of coiled, tempered-steel springs made a portable source of motion available from the mid fifteenth century and led to more versatile contraptions. But it was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the most intricate automata made their appearance. Typical are the devices made by the Rochat brothers, who specialized in singing birds. Their mechanical songbirds were designed to materialize suddenly from wide, hinged panels in snuffbox tops, or to operate in cages suspended so that a clock was visible beneath the base. In their magical boxes, a disc engraved with a question would be inserted in a slot in the box, upon which the lilliputian figure of a magician would come to life and point with his wand to a spot where the answer appeared.

Among the more intricate mechanical gadgets popularized in the eighteenth century were tableaux mécaniques, or mechanical images — framed, painted landscapes, in which mannikins, windmills, and the like came to life thanks to concealed clockwork. Closely related to the tableaux mécaniques were mechanical theatres; the most lavish was put up in the gardens of Hellbrun, near Salzburg, Austria, and involved 113 hydraulically worked figures.

The most acclaimed manufacturer of automata was Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–82), a fertile designer of robotic devices that have proved important for modern industry. In 1738 he constructed an automaton, ‘The Flute Player’, followed by ‘The Tambourine Player’ and ‘The Duck’; this last imitated not only a live duck's external motions, but also the actions of drinking, eating, and digestion. Nominated Inspector of Silk Manufacture in 1741, Vaucanson managed to automate looms by means of perforated cards that activated hooks coupled to the warp yarns. After Vaucanson's death, his loom was rebuilt and improved by J.- M. Jacquard.

With the exception of a few works by Peter Carl Fabergé (d. 1920), the production of costly artistic automata had virtually ceased by the late nineteenth century. But recent times have brought a rapid development of industrial robots that are increasingly replacing the human workforce in car-assembly plants and similar factories. Such robots are especially beneficial in occupations that would otherwise be dangerous to human health or safety.

The term robot stems from the Czech word rabit (work). It came into popular use after 1923 to delineate either mechanical contrivances so ingenious as to be almost human, or workers whom repetitive work was reducing to machines. Its prevalent usage is based on the play R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), written by the Czech playwright, Karel Capek, in which the economy is portrayed as depending on mechanical workers called robots, which can perform any kind of mental or physical work and which, when worn out, are trashed and replaced by new ones. In Capek's play the robots evolve intelligence and a temper of revolt, turn upon their bosses, and kill their creators, in a manner perhaps echoing Frankenstein on a political plane.

Fantastic machinery has continued to fire the imagination, notably in science fiction. William Heath Robinson (1872–1944), a British cartoonist, book illustrator, and designer of theatrical scenery, won fame for his cartoons featuring fantastic machinery with human overtones. His drawings, collected in Absurdities (1934), are particularly notable for the fun he made of machinery. Ludicrously impractical or elaborate machines came to be called ‘Heath Robinson contraptions’.

Roy Porter


Jennings, H. (1985). Pandaemonium: the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers 1660–1886, (ed. M.- L. Jennings and C. Madge). The Free Press, New York; André Deutsch, London.

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