Mechanical miracles: The rise of the automaton

Since their golden age in the 18th and 19th centuries, animated models of humans and animals have delighted and unnerved audiences in equal measure. Here, Harry Pearson traces the colourful ancestry of the automaton


Paris, 1740. The duck sat on a podium. Its body was made of gold-plated copper, its intestines of rubber tubing; its life force was the sort of weights that power a grandfather clock. At the command of its creator, Jacques de Vaucanson, the duck rose, flapped its wings and, stretching out its long neck, pecked, nibbled, then swallowed a handful of grain. The duck took water, splashing with its beak (the audience chuckled). It sat. It settled itself, then, with a quack, rose again and — miracle upon miracles! — defecated onto a silver dish.

Louis XV clapped his hands in delight. Voltaire pronounced himself amazed and declared that Vaucanson was a modern Prometheus. The world was on the cusp of change. Vaucanson, a glovemaker’s son from Grenoble, seemed, for the moment at least, to be at the very centre of things, the herald of a new age of rationalism. He had built automata before. As a novice monk in Lyon, he had astonished the head of his order by devising a machine that served dinner at table. Far from being impressed, the pious gentleman denounced the contraption as diabolical. Fearing a trial for witchcraft, Vaucanson cast off his robes and fled to Paris.

Here he found a more understanding audience and wealthy patrons. In 1738 he had debuted a realistic human automaton that — powered by bellows — played Blavet’s The Nightingale upon the flute. Seeing it for the first time, the philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie expressed the belief that an automaton speaking as naturally as a man was certain to follow.

Soon Vaucanson had moved further in that direction with another flautist: this one had a larger repertoire of 20 melodies, played by one hand while the other tapped out the rhythm on a tambourine. Both model musicians drew crowds, but it was the amazing excreting duck that truly captured the imagination of the public.

According to one writer, the animated fowl was among ‘the greatest masterpieces of mechanics that humankind has ever created’. Most observers agreed. Others speculated wildly on what might follow. For if Vaucanson could build a duck that digested food, might he not one day create a creature that breathed, whose heart beat, that grew and laid eggs, out of which hatched tiny versions of itself? The duck was no mere carnival novelty: it was a philosophical toy that raised questions about the nature of life itself.

As it transpired, Vaucanson had no plans to make more birds, or to bring into being the sort of coldly rational automata that René Descartes had dreamed of building. Newly elevated by the favour of the king, he sold his machines to a group of impresarios and took up a position as chief inspector of silk. In Lyon he caused a riot by introducing an automatic loom powered by a donkey. His creations lived on, touring Europe to great acclaim. By the early 1800s, the trio formed part of the wunderkammer of Gottfried Christoph Beireis, doctor to the Duke of Brunswick. Goethe travelled to see them. He was unimpressed. Age had taken its toll: the automata, the great author wrote, were ‘paralysed’.

The digesting duck made its final major public appearance at the Paris Exposition of 1844. Here it was observed by the famous magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (from whom Harry Houdini took his name). The professional conjuror, whose act featured automata of his own manufacture, was not so easily fooled as monarchs and philosophers. He saw right away that the duck’s most incredible feat was a simple trick. The duck did not digest at all. The bird’s droppings were a handful of breadcrumbs dyed a slimy green, hidden in a chamber in its rear end. No longer quite the marvel it had been, the digesting duck was taken off on another tour. It was finally burned to a crisp in a Krakow house fire in 1879.

A life-size figure dressed in oriental costume, the automaton dumbfounded the audience by playing and beating all comers at chess

The fascination with automata from which Vaucanson’s incredible creations sprang had a long and distinguished history stretching back to ancient Greece. King Solomon was said to have a throne guarded by mechanical beasts that roared as he approached. The legendary ninth century Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan created moving statues. There are accounts of a marvellous mechanical man that entertained King Mu of Zhou in 10th-century China. The Ottomans produced automated birds that sang, like those in WB Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium.

It was from the mid-18th century to the end of the Victorian age, however, that the building of automata truly flourished. The machines had a universal appeal. One of the most famous and influential was designed and built by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a specialist maker of music boxes.

Von Kempelen’s Turk first appeared at the court of Empress Maria Theresa in 1770. A life-size figure dressed in oriental costume, the automaton dumbfounded the audience by playing and beating all comers at chess. Von Kempelen took his marvellous invention on a tour of Europe. In Paris it was said to have challenged and defeated both Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The Turk travelled to the British Isles and on to the USA, provoking wonder in all who saw it.


The chess-playing Turk baffled and amazed Europe until it was revealed to be a hoax: the figure was actually controlled by a man hidden inside the box. Photographs: Bridgeman Images; AKG-Images

In truth there was not much to wonder at — the ‘automaton’ was no such thing. It was actually a puppet, operated by a man hidden inside its impressive-looking and fraudulent mechanism. Edgar Allan Poe witnessed the Turk perform in Richmond, Virginia. He decided that it was a trick, but was inspired to imagine a world where machines really could out-think humans. In doing so, Poe invented a strain of science fiction that spawned everything from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.

In London, Charles Babbage watched the Turk in action. He also thought it a hoax. The automaton did, however, make him ponder how a real calculating machine might be made. The result was his ‘difference engine’, the world’s first computer. The Turk may have been bogus, but his influence on our world was profound and real.

Devoid of all fakery were three beautifully rendered automata made at the workshop of Pierre Jaquet-Droz. The trio — a draughtsman (see main image at top), a writer and a musician — were built between 1768 and 1774 in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. Each figure is 28 inches tall and performs a range of realistic actions. The draughtsman draws four different pictures, including a portrait of Vaucanson’s royal patron, Louis XV. The musician plays upon an organ, while the writer — made of more than 6,000 separate components — can be programmed to pen any message of 40 characters or fewer, making him in the eyes of many the true progenitor of the modern computerised android (the term ‘android’, incidentally, was coined in the 1880s by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam in a creepy symbolist novel that charts the love affair between an English nobleman and a beautiful mechanical woman, a plotline that echoes Pygmalion and foreshadows Blade Runner).


A French musical automaton of a musician and dancers, circa 1870, by J. Phalibois. 23 1/2 in. (59.5 cm.) high; 17 in. (43 cm.) wide. Estimate: £5,000-8,000. This work is offered in the Out of the Ordinary sale sale on 10 September at Christie’s South Kensington

Jaquet-Droz’s trio of automata toured Europe for many decades, mesmerising audiences. The firm that built them became vastly successful, its pieces much sought after. They remain highly collectable: a pair of Jaquet-Droz singing birds sold at auction in 2012 for £735,650.

Unlike the digesting duck, the Jaquet-Droz trio survived their years of labour. In 1906 they were purchased by the Museum of Art and History in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Well-tended and maintained, the little troupe still performs on the first Sunday of every month.

The delightful 18th-century dulcimer player designed and built by the German clockmaker Peter Kintzing and cabinetmaker David Roentgen also lives on. Some 20 inches high, dressed in the costume of a lady of the French court, the model plays eight tunes, hammering delicately on the strings. Kintzing and Roentgen presented the automaton at Versailles in 1784 as a gift for Marie Antoinette (the automaton’s dress is reputedly made from one of the French queen’s cast-offs). Her Majesty was not destined to see out the century, but the dulcimer player endures, and still performs occasionally in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

Likewise the Silver Swan in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, England. This masterpiece was created by the Belgian John Joseph Merlin in 1773. Mark Twain saw it in Paris and wrote that the swan ‘had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eye’. Bought by Sir John Bowes in the 1870s for £200 (equivalent to about £20,000 today), the gracious waterfowl continues to perform at the museum daily, endearing itself to modern audiences much as it did when it charmed the creator of Huckleberry Finn 150 years ago.

François Junod has made an updated version of the writing boy. Made up of more than 4,000 custom-built parts, it can transcribe 1,458 poems

Henri Maillardet, a former apprentice of Jaquet-Droz, was based, with his two brothers, in London. The Maillardets made many automata, including a pair of magicians that now reside in the International Museum of Horology in La-Chaux-de-Fonds. A scrivener credited to Maillardet can be found in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Quite how it got to Pennsylvania remains something of a mystery; but whatever its journey, the Philadelphia Dessinateur has left his mark on popular culture, inspiring the graphic novel upon which Martin Scorsese’s sparkling movie Hugo is based.

The Maillardets’ other creations included a series of beautifully automated caterpillars or silkworms. Made of gold and studded with pearls and diamonds, the ‘Ethiopian’ caterpillars crawled across the ground in a perfect imitation of their real-life counterparts. At least six were made. Two are in the Maurice Sandoz Collection; another can be seen at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. A fourth, commissioned in the 1820s by a wealthy Chinese merchant, was sold at auction in 2010 for $415,000.

As the 20th century dawned and the various mechanisms that powered the automata found more practical uses in industry, so robots (a term popularised by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek) came increasingly to be the province of science-fiction writers. There was still the occasional eccentric invention, however, such as the steam-driven man of American Zadoc Dederick, or the giant, air-pressure-powered Japanese automaton Gakutensoku, which disappeared in Nazi Germany.

Surprisingly in the age of the computerised android, automata are still being made in the traditional way. Ever more intricate, they command high prices. Switzerland-based Christian Bailly has listed for sale a one-off automaton called The Bird Trainer, priced at $6.25 million. Another modern Swiss maker, François Junod, whose workshop is in Sainte-Croix near Lausanne, has made an updated version of the writing boy. His Alexander Pushkin figure is made up of more than 4,000 custom-built parts and can transcribe 1,458 poems, each accompanied by a unique illustration.

Unlike Jaquet-Droz’s creation, Junod’s automaton does not write to order, but by a system of random selection. To those who marvelled at Vaucanson’s duck, he might have looked like he was deciding what to write for himself. And who is to say he isn’t — at least any more than the rest of us?

Main image: The draughtsman, front and rear views of an automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. It is designed to produce four drawings, including a portrait of Louis XV © Musée d’art et d’histore, Neuchâtel

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