automaton that wasn't. Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess-playing
machine, "The Turk."
(6/11) Every year or so, I spend a few days teaching a unit
on puppetry at the college where I work. Puppetry is a fascinating
art that has been practiced all over the world for thousands
of years. What is conjured up in most people's minds when you
say the word "puppets," however, are those Jim Henson
creations that we have all grown up watching on Sesame Street.
Though the Henson Muppets are beloved icons of the art, they
only represent a tiny fraction of the type of puppets that exist.
When a day was added to the class schedule this year, I decided
it would give my students and myself the opportunity to explore
a fascinating form of puppetry that is often ignored by most
texts on the subject: Automata.
Automata are puppets that are not controlled by people. They
are mechanically driven. Today we might even refer to them as
robots, though this is really a term that was only invented
in the 1920s. The history of the automaton (the singular of
automata) goes back much, much further. I would also separate
robots from automata based on how they work. Most robots, both
fictional and real, use both mechanical and digital electronic
systems to operate. For the purposes of this article I'm going
to define automata as machines that appear as human or animal
using only mechanical systems with little or no electronics.
Mechanical systems have been around a long time and for this
reason, so have mechanical puppets. In fact, we need to go back
to ancient Greece to really find the beginning of the automata
Talos and the
Hollywood version of Talos in a scene from Jason
and the Argonaunts.
Even the ancient Greeks were fascinated with the idea of a
machine that looks and acts like a man. At first, though, the
power to make such a device seemed only to reside with the gods.
Hephaestus, the god of volcanos and technology (called Vulcan
by the Romans), built a number of mechanical beings in the shape
of both humans and animals. Perhaps his most well-known mechanical
man was a bronze giant named Talos. In the story Argonautica,
Talos guards the island of Crete by tossing boulders at any
unfriendly ships that approach. The legend has it that Talos
had a vein that ran through his body filled with a blood-like
fluid and sealed with a nail. When the nail was removed, the
fluid ran out and Talso was destroyed. One of my favorite films,
Jason and the Argonauts, depicts Jason knocking off Talos
via this method during a scene filmed using Ray Harryhausen's
glorious stop-motion photography
The tale of Talos is clearly mythical, but there is reason
to believe that the Greeks did actually create automata figures.
Accounts indicate that Architus of Tarantum constructed a flying
mechanical dove in the 5th century BC. Philon of Byzantium made
several figures capable of simple actions including a maid that
would fill a cup with a mixture of wine and water when the vessel
was placed in her hand. It is also thought that the Greeks created
automaton statues for their temples and religious ceremonies.
Hero of Alexandria, who lived during the first century A.D.,
was an inventor credited with the creation of many devices including
the first vending machine (it dispensed holy water when the
buyer dropped in a coin). Hero supposedly created a whole automata
theater that gave a performance ten minutes in length. According
to accounts, the device was controlled by a series of ropes
with knots tied in them. As the rope was pulled through the
device, the knots moved levers which caused actions to happen
on the miniature stage.
The ancient city of Rhodes was renowned for its automata and
a quote from the poet Pindar tells us:
The animated figures stand,
Adorning every public street,
And seem to breathe in stone,
and move their marble feet.
For many years historians doubted the Greek's ability to create
complex mechanical devices. However, in 1901, an incredibly-complicated
apparatus was recovered from the wreck of an ancient Greek ship.
The machine, given the name the "Antikythera
mechanism" based on where it was found, clearly used an
array of complex gears to predict the movements of the planets
and moon. This suggests the Greeks were much better technologists
than most people had thought.
There is evidence while fewer automata were made in Europe
with the onset of the Middle Ages, much of the knowledge about
them was passed onto Muslim scholars who further advanced the
work. Al-Jazari, an Islamic scientist, engineer and writer,
described a number of automata in his 13th century Book of
Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. In the book Al-Jazari
describes how he built a number of such devices including a
band of mechanical musicians. These four, melodic automatons
were positioned in a boat and were used for entertainment during
royal gatherings. Al-Jazari also writes about a clock in the
shape of an elephant that included automata figures: A man who
strikes a bell and a bird that chips to mark the passage of
Al-Jazari is credited with introducing many of the features
that appeared in later automata and other mechanical devices.
He often used the flow of water to power the machines and controlled
their motion through the use of a camshaft. A camshaft is a
rotating rod on which is mounted a series of cams. Cams are
irregularly-shaped discs. As the camshaft turns, levers or pistons
pressing against the cams move in and out in a pattern depending
on how the cam is shaped.
In an automaton the cams and camshaft operate as a sort of
programmable memory. Each lever pressing against the cam can
control one aspect of the machine's movement. Since the camshaft
can have any number of cams on it, it can be used to coordinate
the movement of a very complex device. While camshafts are particularly
useful for automata, they are common features in many types
of machines even today. Every internal combustion engine features
at least one camshaft to control the movement of the valves
that let gases move in and out of the cylinders.
and Other Toys
When automata did start showing up in Europe again it was often
in the form of city clocks similar to Al-Jazari's elephant clock.
One of the best known of these clocks was the Prague Astronomical
Clock in the capital of the Czech Republic. It was installed
in 1410 and still operates today. Legend has it that the maker,
a man named Hanu, was rewarded for his excellent work by the
town fathers by being blinded so that he could never reproduce
the device for another town. Fortunately, this is just a colorful
myth. The clock was originally built by clockmaker Mikulá of
Kada and Professor Jan indel, a teacher of mathematics and
astronomy at Charles University.
Originally the clock had dials that showed the time and the
position of the stars visible in the sky. Later in 1490 a calendar
dial was added along with a number of automata figures. These
included the twelve apostles and the figure of death in the
form of a skeleton that strikes a bell to ring out the time.
Mr. Skeleton was apparently a reminder of how short life is
and to use your time well.
modern mechanical theater by Thomas Kuntz
Many towns commissioned clocks with automata figures for their
town halls, though few were as complex as the one in Prague.
As Europe moved into the Renaissance, more and more automata
appeared. Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical knight that
could stand, sit, raise its visor and move its arms. He presented
his creation at a celebration hosted by Duke Sforza at the court
of Milan in 1495. Plans for the device were discovered in one
of Leonardo's sketchbooks in the 1950's and the automaton has
been recreated by engineer Mario Taddei.
Leonardo also built at least two automata lions. The first,
presented to French King Louis XII in 1509, could rear up on
its hind legs and present lilies, the French royal symbol. A
second lion could walk under its own power and move its head.
It was a gift to François I when he visited Lyons in 1515. The
side of the mechanical beast would pop open and give the king,
again, lilies. François I was so impressed with the work he
invited Leonardo to move to France to be the court painter,
philosopher, architect and engineer. Leonardo spent the rest
of his life working for the French king in relative comfort.
Like the lions, many automata became playthings for the rich.
A mechanical galleon made of copper and steel built by Hans
Schlottheim of Augsburg in the 15th century was designed to
sail up the dinner table to announce a banquet. The device has
a number of moving figures including sailors who used hammers
to strike the hours and quarter hours on bells. As it rolled
along it would play music and in a grand finale the ship's cannons
would fire. The device no longer works, but can still be seen
at the British Museum in London.
Hero's idea of a mechanical theater re-appeared in this era.
These devices were often powered by windup springs or water.
They might present several acts with a curtain closing in between
or simply a continuous pageant of activity. One of the few from
that era still operating is TheMechanical Theater
of Schloss Hellbrunn which was installed in the Hellbrunn
water gardens in Salzburg, Austria, in 1750. The theater depicts
life in the town: workers carry goods, guards do their rounds
and nobles stroll around, all to the tune of a water-powered
Some automata was constructed in an attempt to understand the
operation of living animals. In 1739 French inventor Jacques
de Vaucanson built a device he called the Canard Digérateur,
or Digesting Duck. The automaton in the shape of a duck
would appear to eat kernels of grain and later defecate the
remains. The duck was actually a bit of a trick, however. It
stored the eaten grain in one compartment while the feces it
produced came from material stored in another compartment. Even
though the duck didn't really digest anything, it demonstrated
Vaucanson's belief that animals were just a complex type of
machine whose muscles and bones could be replaced by gears and
Perhaps the most complicated device from this period that still
works is housed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, USA.
This science museum is the closest one to where I grew up and
I remember visiting it on a number of class trips. The automaton
appears as a mechanical boy sitting at a desk holding a pen.
Though it never worked during my visits, it was still fascinating
to look at and was my first introduction to an automaton.
The device was built in the 18th century by Henri Maillardet,
a Swiss clockmaker and mechanician who lived in London. When
wound up with a key and paper was placed before it, the automaton
could draw one of four different pictures or write one of two
poems. It was a marvel of its time. Maillardet used the camshaft
first conceived by Al-Jazari centuries before to control the
motion of the figure's hand. Maillardet demonstrated his machine
around London in the early 17th century, but after 1833 nobody
is sure what happened to it. There are rumors that it may have
been purchased at one point by showman P.T. Barnum and brought
to the United States. The Franklin Institute obtained it when
in November of 1928, a truck pulled up to the museum and unloaded
the pieces of a ruined brass machine that had been destroyed
in a fire. They had no idea of its origin.
It took many decades for the staff and volunteers at the museum
to get the device working again. When they finally switched
it on they watched in amazement as it drew out one picture and
signed it "Written by the Automaton of Maillardet:" the first
clue they had to its creator.
Pulls a Fast One
Probably the most well-known automaton of the 18th century
was a mechanical chess playing machine called "The Turk." The
Turk was constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian
author and inventor. The device appeared as a life-sized man's
torso sporting a black beard and a turban, giving the machine
the appearance of an oriental sorcerer. In front of the machine
was a large desk on which sat a chessboard. When he demonstrated
it, Kempelen would open the front of the desk to show the many
complex gears and cams needed to operate the machine.
The Turk toured the world, winning games wherever it went against
some notable opponents like Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin
Franklin. It wasn't until the 1820s that the machine was exposed
as an elaborate hoax. Concealed within the base of the mechanism
was a human chess expert, his location disguised by a clever
arrangement that allowed him to change positions inside the
desk so that he was always in a part of the desk which had its
doors closed. In this way the demonstrator could open every
door the machine had for inspection (just not all at the same
time) and never give the trick away.
Of course today we have digital computers capable of playing
chess games at the highest level. If these were connected with
a robot to move the pieces a real version of The Turk could
be made. With most of its smarts in digital-electronic form,
however such as device would be outside my definition of automata
I gave earlier.
Is there any room in our high-tech, digital, electronic world
for such quaint devices?
Clip from Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room
Automata certainly exist in our world today. The real pioneer
of these modern versions was Walt Disney. Disney didn't call
his inventions automata, but actually trade-marked the name
"Audio-Animatronics" as he saw them as a three-dimensional extension
of animation. Disney's first major automata attraction was The
Enchanted Tiki Room, which opened in Disneyland in 1963.
The room was filled with mechanical birds and flowers that talked
and sang. I saw it as a child in the late 60's and was fascinated.
I still think of it as one of Disney's best attractions.
The Disney people have often talked about their devices as
being under computer command, but the truth is that the early
ones, like the Tiki Room, had no digital circuitry at all. For
example, to make a bird open his beak a valve would be opened
in the attraction's control center that sent pressurized air
up a small tube to the artificial animal. The pressure would
then push a small piston connected to the bird's beak making
it open. The tube could run a great distance from the control
room allowing the controls to be quite some distance from the
puppet. The tubes were small enough that several could be threaded
up the bird's leg to give it a number of possible movements.
The valve was controlled by an electrical switch that responded
to a certain tone. The tones were placed on an audio tape with
several other tracks that also included the music and singing.
By simply playing the tape, the whole show would be set in motion
with everything perfectly coordinated.
Disney isn't the only one who has automata figures. They are
found in a number of entertainment and educational venues (one
of my personal favorites are automaton dinosaurs). Automata
figures are still found in clocks these days. The Nippon Television
Network headquarters in Japan has a 28-ton mechanical clock
that features dozens of automata figures and is the largest
of this type of device in the world.
My favorite modern application of automata comes in the form
of smaller art work, however. In particular I find the work
of Thomas Kuntz very interesting. He's built a number of automata
instillations ranging from the complex "The Alchemysts Clocktower,"
which is really a five-minute automata theater presentation,
to the simple but engaging "The Great Kundalini, Thelemagician"
where an evil sorcerer levitates an unwilling victim.
Great Kundalini, Thelemagician" levitation/magician automaton
by Thomas Kuntz
Although creating such complex mechanical puppets as Kuntz
does is beyond the capability of most of us, there are a number
of simple automata anybody can build. A basic wooden automaton
can be built from a kit. I purchased a book which allows you
to punch out cardboard pieces and glue them together to make
hand-cranked models of leaping sheep and a flying fish. They
made excellent demonstrations for my class. The Exploratoriam,
an amazing hands-on science museum in California, has downloadable
instructions for several simple automata that can be built out
So take some time to explore mechanical puppets. It's a fascinating