The Encyclopedia of the Nineteenth Century defines "automaton" as "a machine which has the form of an organized being and contains within itself a mechanism capable of creating movement and simulating life." And in his book, Automata: The Golden Age 1848-1947 (1987), Christian Bailly describes the automaton as "a work of art in which sculpture, music, costume, and mechanics all play a part." But unlike other machines, automatons incite the imagination and inspire admiration.
In ancient Egypt, priests would secretly manipulate articulated statues of the gods to make them seem to move and speak. During the Greco-Roman period, automata that relied on simple principles of physics, such as the movement of fluids and air pressure, became popular.
Automata, in the form of cathedral clocks, flourished in Europe during the fourteenth century. Figures of men, called “Jacquemarts,” and animals chronicled the passage of the hours by their mechanical gestures. Some of the finest examples are the cathedral clock of San Marco in Venice, the astronomical clock in Strasbourg, and the clock of Dijon. In the Renaissance pleasure-garden of Philippe, duke of Artois, hydraulics animated birds perched in the trees and powered mechanical musicians.
The 18th century heralded the arrival of a new, more sophisticated kind of automaton — the android. Androids are automatons in human form that perform humanlike functions by means of hidden springs, gears, etc. These devices could, so to speak, write, draw, or play a musical instrument. Some could even “speak” a few words. The planning and building of a single model might take several years. Each component was produced by hand, and costs were prohibitive. The android captured the imagination of the time because people saw it as symbolic of the triumph of reason over ignorance. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century was a boon for automata. The use of machines reduced the time necessary for making the devices, which resulted in lower prices. The automaton became the perfect drawing-room accessory. The Marais district of Paris is where automaton-making — a combination of various forms of craftsmanship and clockwork mechanisms — sprang up.
These mechanical devices can be divided into several categories. Tableaux animés are pictures containing moving elements. Organs containing automata are another kind. These are real instruments whose music is accompanied by the gestures of mechanical figures. Mechanical toys are still another category, though the line between mechanical toy and automaton is difficult to discern. But of all these devices, the automaton is the most sophisticated. The extent of the automaton’s complexity is only exceeded by its aesthetically pleasing appearance. Each step of the process, from design to the final touches, is done with the greatest care and attention to detail.
The velvet-draped Victorian drawing room may have been replaced by the family room with its big-screen TV, surround sound, and DVD player, but in certain exclusive circles, the automaton appears to be alive and well.