The Role of Automata in the History of Technology

The Role of Automata in the History of Technology


By SILVIO A. BEDINI

THE FIRST COMPLEX machines produced by man were automata, by means of which he attempted to simulate nature and domesticate natural forces. They constituted the first step in the realization of his dream to fly through the air like a bird, swim the sea like a fish, end to become ruler of all nature. From these attempts to imitate life by mechanical means, man subsequently utilized the principles involved to produce the complex mechanisms which have resulted in the technological advances of the Space Age.

Automata had its greatest period of development following the rise of mechanicism with the revival of Greek culture during the Renaissance. In addition to the considerable progress that was made in the philosophy of science as well as in the sciences of astronomy and mathematics during this' turbulent period, the stage was being set for major technological developments which came to fruition in a later era. The writings of Ctesibius, Philon, and Heron, which had been preserved in the works of the Arabs and Byzantines, were brought into the popular domain once more in translations by Renaissance humanists and exercised considerable influence on scientific thought.

Distribution of these scientific treatises led to the publication of numerous commentaries by Italian and other writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulting in considerable preoccupation with hydraulics and pneumatics and their application to biological automata. The commentaries not only rendered translations and reconstructions of the written words of the Greek ancients, but the writers added sketches and designs to their distillations in an attempt to explain aid illustrate, and elaborate on, the early mechanisms. These reconstructions often inspired other and more complicated works, which were constructed by architects of that and subsequent periods for the diversion of wealthy patrons.

Fragments of Heron's writings were the firs' of the Greek works to be translated. These appeared for the first time in Latin in the work of Giorgio Valla,1 published in 1501, followed by complete translations into Latin by Comma dini2 in 1575. The single work which provoked the greatest interest among Renaissance scholars was the Pneumatics, which was translated and published for the first time by Giovanni Battista Aleotti3 in 1589, and in which the translator incorporated some ideas of his own. Other versions followed quickly, the best known being that by Alessandro Giorgi da Urbino4 of 1592 and 1595.

One of the greatest single works that grew out of this literature was a bilingual volume in French and Italian entitled Le Diverse e Artificiose Macchine (Diverse and Ingenious Machines) by Captain Agostino Ramelli. It enjoyed popularity not only in France and Italy, but in Spain and Germany as well. Ramelli's work was not a translation of Heron, but it borrowed heavily from the Alexandrine writings. He described and illustrated for the first time the rotary pump, mechanical details of windmills, and a coffer-dam of interlocking piles, as well as other technological developments. Consistent with other writings of the period, Ramelli did not neglect to include several examples of biological automata in the form of hydraulically operated singing birds.

Notable among similar writings was the Pneumaticorum Libri Tres of Giambattista della Porta of Naples, which was published in Latin in 1601 and which was subsequently translated into Italian by one of his disciples. Della Porta's work was not a translation of the worksof the past, but a new and personal approach to the subject including cririques on certain works of Heron.

Equally important was the work entitled Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes avec Diverses Machines tant Utiles que Plaisantes (The Relations of Motive Forces, with Various Machines as Useful as they are Pleasing), published in Frankfort in 1615. The author, Salomon de Caus (1576-1626), was a French engineer in the service of the Palatine Elector. In this work he was particularly preoccupied with the production of pleasure gardens and hydraulic displays; he applied the principles of hydraulics for the solution of various problems, in which the influence of Heron is in strong evidence (see Figure 1). Part of the work described grotesque grottoes and fountains, which later served as prototypes for actual constructions.

The most important application of the hydraulics devised by the Greek ancients was made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for the elaborate gardens of the royal mansions and palaces of Renaissance Europe. Little change was effected in these mechanisms from the time of Philon and Heron. The grottoes of the European gardens employed the same combination of movements as had been utilized in the most ancient times. The decoration, however, reflected the era; it was executed with considerably more care and with a profusion and confusion of detail and accessories as the Renaissance developed. A tradition was established based on the prototype of the water gardens built by the Count d'Artois in the late thirteenth century for his castle at Hesdin.

These ingenious hydraulic and pneumatic machines next had their greatest development in Italy. An account of the best sixteenth century examples was published by Montaigne in 1581.8 At the Villa d'Este at Tivoli, he particularly noted the fine statuary adorning the villa and the gardens, which had been reproduced from the finest sculptures of Rome. Although a fine display of fountains and waterfall has survived at the villa to the present, nothing remains of the mechanical curiosities which were featured in the grottoes and which have fallen victims to moisture and to time. Montaigne was particularly impressed by the organs that played music to the accompaniment of the fall of water and devices which imitated the sound of trumpets. He related how birds began to sing and how, when an owl appeared upon a rock, the bird song ceased abruptly. This sequence, borrowed in its entirety from Heron of Alexandria, was to be borrowed again several decades later by de Caus.

Montaigne observed similar displays at the archducal villa of Scarperio in Tuscany, and he noted especially the casino of the Archduke of Florence with its mills motivated by water and air power to operate small church clocks, animals, soldiers, and countless other automata. In Germany, Montaigne described similar curiosities at the famous residence of the Foulcres, the banking family of Augsburg.

One of the most famous waterworks of the seventeenth century was that constructed at the chateau at Heilbrunn for the Archbishop Marcus Sitticus in about 1646, based on designs frohm de Caus. Although the original hydromechanical devices have been replaced with more modern forms of motivation, the curiosities are still intact.

The major novelty still extant at Heilbrunn is a later innovation, however. It is a mechanical theatre installed upon a flat area where ODCe a group of automata called the Forge of Vulcan had been situated. The theatre, added to the installation in 1725 by a craftsman of Nuremberg named Lorenz Rosenegge, features 256 figures, of which 119 are animated by means of a single water turbine with a horizontal axis operating a series of reduction gears. The final gear carries a cylinder on which a number of cams regulate the movements of the figures by means of copper wires. The wheelwork consists of wooden wheels with iron teeth and pinions. A powerful hydraulic organ provides background music and covers the noise of the mechanism.

The life of an entire village takes place on a stage that measures about six yards in width. As sentinels move about to announce the time, noblemen bow to ladies who flutter their fans, while guards on sentry duty show their arms, jugglers in Hungarian costumes watch a ballerina dance with a tame bear, and merchants sell their wares. Of particular interest is the left wing of the theatre, which is shown in the process of construction, with the workmen plying their respective trades.

The automata and waterworks of the Renaissance undoubtedly reached the highest peak of development in the gardens of the royal chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which had often served as the residerce of the kings of France. In the late sixteenth century King Henry IV considerably enlarged the chateau so that it became thence forth the principal royal residence. To effect these changes, Henry borrowed from Archduke Ferdinand I de Medici the services of Tommaso Francini (1571-1651), a young Florentine architect and mechanician.

Accompanied by his younger brother, Alessandro, Francini arrived in France in 1698. His first assignment at Saint-Germain-en-Laye was to embellish a series of terraces with grottoes and fountains. These terraces, lying between the garden and the Seine, were sustained with vaulted galleries of sufficient size to permit passage from one to another. Francini devised an elaborate waterworks, utilizing a water supply from the nearby river. The main feature was a great fountain, from the basin of which water descended by means of intricate channels and accumulated in the reservoirs placed within the vaults of the galleries beneath. By means of a multitude of secondary tubes, these reservoirs supplied the grottoes and fountains of the galleries and provided the force to motivate the various mechanisms. Identical systems were repeated in the galleries below, so that the water was finally collected and combined to give life to the fountains adorning the Italian-style garden. Dictated by the popular style of the period, mythological subjects were featured. The first three grottoes opened from the third landing, or Doric Gallery, and featured a Dragon, an Organ Player, and Neptune. On the fourth landing the grotto of Hercules was flanked on either side by the grottoes of Perseus and Andromeda and of Orpheus.

The largest of the grottoes was that of Perseus, in which the fully armed hero descended from the ceiling and killed with his sword a dragon that arose from the great basin of water. At one side Andromeda was chained to a rock, while in another corner Bacchus sat drinking upon a barrel. Similar scenes, based on different themes, were presented in the other grottoes. Only the most fertile imagination could have produced such a complexity of mechanical elements of such a delicate nature which could be made to function simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the complex display was destined to have but a short life. Great sums of money were required to keep the waterworks in operation. This factor, in addition to the decision to transfer the court to Fountainbleau, resulted in the final abandonment of the project. No trace of it remains, other than some engravings made by Abraham Bosse in 1625 from Francini's original drawings.

The Francini brothers went on to embellish the park at Fountainbleau with a series of fountains and grottoes, and then in 1661 they designed a series of waterworks for the palace of Versailles for King Louis XIV. In spite of the unusual difficulties created by a limited water supply, they produced numerous fountains as well as the Grotto of the Teti, which was considered superior even to those at Saint-Germain. The waterworks of Versailles was also short-lived; cornpleted in 1668, the grotto was demolished in 1686 when the palace was enlarged. A description by Felibien and an engraving have survived.

Just as the waterworks and grottoes of the Renaissance gardens were tangible revivals of the hydraulic and pneumatic devices of the ancient Greek culture, some of the same influence filtered into the field of clockmaking. This is evidenced in the medieval monastic water clocks recently brought to light in an illumination from a moralized Bible in the Bodleian Library.

It is consequently not surprising to discover that the greatest advances in the development of biological automata, of astronomical clocks, and of the fine mechanisms were probably simultaneous in point of time and derivation. The common origin in Greek culture received its major impetus from the craft of the clockmaker with the development of mechanical clockwork early in the Renaissance. There appears to be no longer any question, on the basis of recent research, that the mechanical clock and fine instrumentation evolved in a direct line without substantial change from the mechanical water clocks of the Alexandrine civilization, transmitted through Islam and Byzantium from a tradition that may have originated in China, that reached Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Other influences intervened to transform these origins into mechanical clockwork, leading simultaneously to the development Qf fine instrumentation in the form of timepieces and scientific instruments on the one hand, and elaborate automata on the other. One of the factors which greatly influenced the establishment of the clockmaking tradition was the organization and increasing power of craft guilds.

Against this background gradually emerged fully mechanical automata with apparently responsive action. For instance, in place of the cords and levels used to manipulate the bird on the clock tower, as illustrated in de Honnecourt's album, clockwork was substituted to operate the bird in a lifelike manner. A particularly ,fine surviving example of this device is the cock from the first clock installed in about 1350 in the cathedral at Strassbourg (see Figures 2 and 3).

Probably the first conversion from the hydraulic and pneumatic to the purely mechanical automata, which occurred in Europe with the advent of the clockmaker, was the " jacquemart" as an adjunct to the public clocks. An earlier form may have been that of an angel which blew a trumpet to announce the hours, in the tradition of sketches preserved in the album of Villard de Honnecourt. Whatever their origin, the jacks were veritably giants in size, to make for greater visibility. The subsequent addition of a quarter strike to community clocks provided an opportunity for the addition of other automata to strike the bells, and in the course of time the jacquemart developed a family of his own. The church soon benefited by the novelty, with the result that religious scenes were portrayed by automata on the face of the clock towers. The most popular representation depicted the Madonna and Child, who appeared through a doorway in the face of the clock tower upon the striking of each hour by the jacquemart at the top of the tower. When the Madonna was seated, the three kings, often followed by shepherds, appeared from another entrance at one side, passed before the Madonna, genuflected, removed their crowns, tendered their gifts, and moved on to disappear through another doorway. Among the most representative examples of these jacquemarts and automata are the figures which survive on the clock tower of St. Mark's in Venice, which date from the fifteenth century.

Eventually the parade of automata was copied on community clocks in other forms. Instead of religious figures, the automata took the form of heralds, kings, warriors, and other figures of legend and history.

In the course of time, the great public clocks provided inspiration for the form of many of the dramatic clocks that were subsequently produced. These often proved to be reproductions in miniature of their larger counterparts, with figures to strike the bells with their hands or feet, and automata that appeared through openings over their dial at designated intervals. Notable surviving examples are several produced by Isaac Habrecht (1544-1620), which are preserved in the collections of the British Museum and gosenborg Castle in Denmark. Of equal significance is the magnificent astronomical clock constructed by Philipp Immser in 1555 for Elector Otto-E-leinrich,16 now in the Technisches Museum in Vienna (see Figures 4a and 4b).

It is difficult and even hazardous to attempt to delineate a priority in the various types of biological automata motivated by the relatively new mechanical clockwork instead of the hydraulic or pneumatic motivation of the past. There were, for example, isolated instances of talking heads claimed to have been constructed by Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Gerbert, and Robert Grosseteste. Perhaps of greater significance in this connection were the mechanical lion of da Vinci and the two automata created by Johannes Muller, called Regiomontanus (1436-1476). One of these was said to have been an iron fly, which Regiomontanus presented to Emperor Maximilian, and the other was the fabled eagle which was claimed to have escorted the Emperor to the city gates of Nuremberg.

Equally interesting was the device credited to Bishop Virgilius of Naples. He is said to have constructed a large brass fly which chased away all the other flies in the city so successfully that for a period of eight years the foods in the shops never spoiled. It is apparent from these examples that, in medieval as well as in ancient times, men were inclined to exaggerate the complexity and success of automata produced in their time. For this reason, these legendary creations, if they existed at all, were probably devices to delude and not true examples of mechanical automata.

These apocryphal mechanisms set the stage for the greatest achievement in the world of automata -- the android. This was a completely mechanical figure which simulated a living human or animal, operating with apparently responsive action. The first android of record is believed to have been constructed by Hans Bullmann of Nuremberg (?-1535). Extremely ingenious, Bullmann produced numerous successful figures of men and women that moved and played musical instruments. During the last year of his life, he was summoned to Vienna by the Emperor Ferdinand, for whom he produced a variety of novelties before his return to his native city.

Another pioneer in the construction of androids was a contemporary of Bullmann named Gianello Torriano of Cremona (ca. 1515-l585). When the Emperor Charles V visited Pavia in 1529, he expressed a wish to have the famous Astrarium of Giovanni de Dondi restored. Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga, governor of Milan, recommended Gianello, already well established as one of the foremost Italian clockmakers. It is generally believed that Gianello entered the Emperor's service at this time and returned with him to Spain. Having found the Dondi Astrarium beyond repair, it is believed that he constructed a replica. When the Emperor abdicated in 1555 and retired to the convent of San Yuste, he was accompanied by a staff of 50 retainers, among whom was Gianello. The clockmaker devoted his time and ability to the construction of automata with which he sought to distract his mournful monarch. Often Gianello surprised the Emperor with the novelty of his creations. After dinner, for instance, he would produce a tableau on the dining table consisting of a variety of little figures of armed soldiers that marched about, rode on horseback, beat drums, blew trumpets, and engaged in battle. On other occasions he would release little carved wooden birds which flew into every corner, to the consternation of the disapproving Superior of the convent, who considered them works of sorcery. The only surviving work which can be attributed to Gianello is an automaton of a lady lute player, now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (see Figures 5 and 6).

As the great cathedral clocks with jacquemarts and astronomical dials gradually spread throughout Europe, becoming more numerous between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, they became less complicated. It is relatively simple to trace the evolution from the craft of the clockmaker to the art of making fine instruments, which became a dominating factor in the Scientific Revolution.

One critical element in this chain of evolution was the gradual combination of the craft of the clockmaker with the art of the jeweler, which resulted in some of the finest works of mechanical art ever produced by man's hands. The combination appears to have first occurred in southern Germany, probably late in the fourteenth century. Great centers of trade in these objects of luxury developed in Nuremberg and Augsburg, and to a lesser degree in Dresden and Ulm, particularly during the sixteenth century. Great imagination was employed in the production of a great variety of table ornaments, clocks, and related products of the combined clockmakers' and jewelers' art, many of which featured animated figures.

The most classic examples, and among the earliest, were the table fountains, of which not more than several have survived. A specimen of unusual interest is a fourteenth century silver gilt and enamelled fountain now in the Cleveland Museum of Art; it is believed that this fountain (see Figure 7) was a gift to Abu al-Hamid II, delivered by a son of the Duke of Burgundy. This elaborate Gothic fantasy is an ingenious device with a total of 32 outlets through which wine or perfumed water flowed. Twenty-four of the outlets are in the shapes of gargoyles or similar fixed spouts which formed part of the columns; the remaining eight outlets are mechanical. Briefly, the fountain consists of three terraces supported on a large central column which rises from a basin at the foot. Featured on the lowest and widest platform are four water wheels placed before each of four nude figures and flanked on either side by bells joined by a cross bar grasped in the figure's hands. The water or wine issuing from each figure's mouth plays directly on the cogs of the wheels causing them to rotate and the bells to ring. The middle terrace has four more figures with necks craned; water or wine spraying from their mouths likewise causes four wheels to turn and bells to ring. On the third and smallest platform, which surmounts the whole in the form of a Gothic tower around the central column, are alternated two lions and two dragons crouched at the embattlements and spouting liquids from their mouths.

This complicated table ornament is significant particularly in relation to similar devices recorded in the past. It is reminiscent, for instance, of the twelfth problem of Heron's Pneumatica, which deals with "a Vessel from which the contents flow when filled to a certain height." It bears a certain relationship also to Villard de Honnecourt's device, in which a central column is fitted into a drinking bowl and above the level of the rim of which was a bird "holding his beak so low, that he may seem to drink when the cup is filled. Then the wine will run through the tube, and through the foot of the cup, which is double."

Even more, the table fountain of the Cleveland Museum of Art bears a resemblance to the fabled fountain-tree created by Guillaume Boucher in the thirteenth century for the Throne Hall of the Mangu Rhan, which utilized biological automata with seeming responsive action. The great fountain (see Figure 8), which was certainly the first antecedent of the modern drug store fountain, was made in the form of a great silver tree with gilt leaves and fruit, and with serpents twined in the branches. Four large silver lions standing at its roots belched forth a variety of several intoxicating liquors into bowls set before them. At the top of the tree was the figure of an angel with a movable arm holding a trumpet. When one of the bowls ran dry, an attendant would shout to the angel to blow the trumpet, which the angel obligingly did, and liquor would flow again. The mechanics were relatively simple. A conduit from the mouth of each lion led through the trunk of the tree into an underground cellar outside the palace where the liquors were stored and where servants waited in readiness for the sound of the trumpet to pour. The angel had been designed to operate by means of a bellows at the mouth of the pipe which ran through the tree trunk. However, the great height of the tree made it impossible to furnish wind of sufficient force for this operation. Boucher was forced to resort to a vault excavated under the tree in which a man was hidden, whose duty was to blow into the pipe when he heard the call from the attendant. The sound of the trumpet in turn alerted the servants in the cellar.

Another table decoration similar to the table fountain which was representative of the jeweler's art in the same period was the nef. This was a container for table utensils, wines, or spices, made in the form of a large ship and wrought in gold, silver or gilt brass, often further ornamented with stones and enamels. In the sixteenth century jewelers began to modify this piece by adding automata and complicated mechanisms. It developed into a table toy or conversation piece, which often incorporated a clock as well as a variety of animated figures that participated in complicated action.

One of the finest surviving specimens of the nef was produced in about 1580 at Prague for Emperor Rudolph II by Hans Schlottheim (1547-1625) of Augsburg. This ingenious construction, made of gilt brass and measuring about 2 1/2 feet in length, is in the collection of the British Museum (see Figure 9). As the hours pass, finely wrought miniature figures move about a clock dial and pass in procession before a throne.

A natural development of the nef was another table ornament for the dining table of the wealthy nobility. This was the triumphal chariot, wrought with the same skill and elaboration by the jeweler-cloclmaker. A clock, the dial of which was usually incorporated as the rim of a wheel, provided the excuse for its use, while the action of automata provided table interest. Little by little automata were developed to operate with the semblance of responsive action by means of clockwork.

Another development, made possible as a direct result of the Renaissance clockmaker's skill, was the introduction of sound by the repacement of the hydraulic and pneumatic motivation with self-contained delicate mechanisms. The singing birds of Philon and Heron, which had been motivated by compressed air or steam, were the earliest machines to reproduce the sounds of living things, but the first substantial innovation to make the reproduction of sound possible within a self-contained unit was the revolving pinned barrel or cylinder. The action of pins or pegs attached to the circumference of the cylinder or barrel at right angles to the axis could be transmitted some distance by means of simple levers as the cylinder revolved. If these levers were in contact with valves of organ pipes, for instance, the pipes would sound for as long as the pins continued to maintain contact with the levers. This device made possible the completely mechanical perforrnance of automatic sounding instruments. One of the earliest applications of this device of which there is record was made in an organ clock presented as a gift from Queen Elizabeth of England, to the Sultan of Turkey in 1599 (see Figure 10). The clock was the work of a goldsmith named Randolph Bull, clockmaker to the Queen, while the organ mechanism was constructed by Thomas Dallam, who also supervised the installation of the clock in the Sultan's palace.

Although the hydraulic organ had been well known since the time of Ctesibius, the mechanical organ utilizing the pinned barrel was first described in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher of Rome. Kircher described also "the automatic organ machine which utters the voices of animals and birds" in which a satyr played a short piece on the pan pipes, to which a nymph replied, like an echo, with a melody played upon a small organ. Various examples noted by Kircher were not contemporary, but existed prior to his time.

The instruments which Kircher described were similar to those seen and noted by the German traveller J. A. F. Uffenbach in a garden grotto of the Papal palace in Rome. There a mechanical organ motivated by water power activated a centaur blowing a horn and the Muses on Mount Parnassus playing musical instruments, while a statue of the god of the shepherds played a flute. The total effect was the sound of a small choir and orchestra performing for the listeners "a mechanical programme of complete overtures and delightful choruses."

Another writer of the same period who devoted some study to the subject of the pinned cylinder and of the mechanical organ was Salomon de Caus. In his work, which has already been noted, he described an organ played by a nymph in a cave, to which an echo answered, while Cyclops sat upon a rock and played pan pipes, the whole display motivated by water power.

It was a short step to a combination of the pinned cylinder and the spring-driven clockwork to provide the sound of living things and of musical instruments in automata. This combination made possible a great variety of developments in the late seventeenth and during the eighteenth centuries. The most notable of these were the androids constructed in the mid-eighteenth century by Jacques Vaucanson (1709-1782), who brought the production of automata to its highest point of development. Vaucanson is unquestionably the most import inventor in the history of automata, as well as one of the most important figures in the history of machine technology. Although he was responsible for pioneering in the development of machine tools and later inspired the work of Sir Henry Maudslay and others, it was, ironically enough, his automata -- which occupied the briefest interlude in his life -- which brought him permanent fame and fortune.

Born in 1709 in Grenoble, France, Vaucanson was the youngest of a family of ten children and exhibited great mechanical ability at a very early age. After having attended the oratory college at Juilly he studied with the Jesuits at Grenoble, and in 1725 joined the order of Minims of Lyon. During his training period, however, Vaucanson indulged his mechanical interests by creating automatically flying angels. This impelled the provincial of the order to destroy his makeshift workshop, and Vaucanson used the incident as an excuse to to be relieved of his clerical vows.

Vaucanson moved to Paris and, in direct contrast with his recent religious life, gave himself up to a life of debauchery while he undertook the studies of mechanics, music, and anatomy. He developed an interest in the study of medicine and atitempted to construct a "moving anatomy" which reproduced the principal organic functions. Debts, illness, and eventually boredom caused him to abandon the project. He went on to the construction of his famous androids, which he undertook for the sole purpose of making money; he succeeded beyond his dreams, for his two musicians and excreting duck made him wealthy and famous throughout Europe.

In 1735 Vaucanson had begun to formulate plans for the construction of the first android, which was to be a life-sized figure of a musician, dressed in a rustic fashion and playing eleven melodies on its flute, moving the levers realistically by its fingers and blowing into the instrument with its mouth. In October 1737 the automaton was completed and exhibited first at the fair of Saint-Germain and later at Longueville. All Paris flocked to see the mechanical masterpiece with the human spirit; the press was extremely favorable, and Vaucanson was launched upon his career.

In the same year he completed the second automaton, another life-sized figure, which was dressed as a provincial shepherd and which played 2O melodies on a provincial flute with one hand and a drum with the other, with great precision and the timing of a practiced player. At this same time Vaucanson completed the third and most famous of his automatons: "an artificial duck of gilt brass which drinks, eats, flounders in water, digests and excretes like a live duck" (see Figures 1 and 12). It was Vaucanson's intention to create in this duck the "moving anatomy" that he had visualized once before. Accordingly, the figure of the duck was produced full size of gilt brass in a simplified form, the body pierced with openings to permit the public to observe the process of digestion.

It was inevitable that, in the course of devising these complicated automata, Vaucanson should invent several devices which subsequently achieved technological importance. One was the first flexible tube of India rubber (caoutchouc), which was to have a variety of applications in many fields in the future and which Vaucanson devised for the purpose of simulating the intestines in the " moving anatomy " of his "duck".. In spite of the considerable success of his three automata, Vaucanson tired of them quickly and sold them in 1743. Meanwhile, in 1741, he had been appointed an inspector in the silk factories He subsequently invented and perfected an apparatus for automatic weaving of brocades which has been erroneously attributed to Jacquard, and his indust ial metal cutting lathe with prismatic guideways of about 1760 anticipated that of Maudslay by at least a generation. Eventually he became an examiner of new machine inventions for the Academie Royales des Sciences and developed a large collection of machines of his own design. Of particular importance was a boring machine and a machine for producing an endless chain, the concept of which which was greatly in advance of his times.

Just as the motivating power furnished by a spring-wound clockwork made possible mechanical music for automata, it made possible the reproduction of the sound of words by mechanical means. In the seventeenth century Kircher had affirmed that it was possible to produce a head which moved the eyes, lips, and tongue, and, by means of the sounds which it emitted, appeared to be alive. He began such a device to distract Queen Christina of Sweden, but apparently it was never successfully completed. A similar project was attempted in 1705 by Valentin Merbitz, rector of the Kreuzschule of Dresden, who devoted five years to it. The next major advance in this field was made in about 1770 by Friedrich von Knauss of Vienna, who constructed not one but four speaking heads. That his project was not completely successful is attested to by the fact that in 1779 the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg used the production of a successful speaking head as the theme of a contest for mechanicians and organ manufacturers, specifying that the machine be capable of speaking the five vowels. Three inventors produced results at about the same time: the Abbe Mical in 1778, the Baron von Kempelen and C. G. Kratzenstein, both in 1780. Numerous others constructed speaking heads within the next decades, but never with any marked degree of success.

Ranking high among the more successful imitations of human life in the world of automata were the mechanical writers. Probably the earliest well-known examples were four machines invented and constructed by Friedrich von Knauss between 1753 and 1760. In his earlier examples the writing was merely traced by a hand holding a pen, but in the fourth machine the writing was actually executed by a figure. None of the mechanism was contained in the body of the figure but enclosed in a metal globe on which the figure was placed. The machine wrote a lengthy passage of 107 words and antedated the work of Jacquet-Droz by at least two decades. While the first three machines produced a programmed text, the fourth, preserved to the present day in Vienna, could write any phrase composed in advance, and it could also write to dictation by means of a hand-operated control on the letter keyboard.32 It is of particular interest to the history of technology that Knauss, the inventor of these four machines, was subsequently the inventor of the first typewriter

The most spectacular of all automata that have survived are the Writer. the Artist, and the Musician produced by Pierre Jacquet-Droz (1771-1790) and his son Henry-Louis (1753-1791) of Geneva. Father and son combined all the technical developments known in their time in an effort to produce a machine that faithfully imitated a human being, and their efforts were as successful as any have ever been. The Writer, a life-size and lifelike figure of a boy seated as a desk, is capable of writing any message up to 40 letters. The Artist is a similar figure of a boy that makes four sketches: a dog, a cupid, the head of Louis XIV, and the profiles of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The third figure is that of a young girl that plays the clavichord by the pressure of her own fingers upon the keys.

Two other figures almost as notable are the Magician and the Draughtsman-Writer of Henri Maillardet (1745-?), a craftsman who had worked with the Jacquet-Droz. The Magician, seated upon a stage built over a clock and music box, answers questions printed oval cards inserted in a drawer on the stage. If the drawer is opened and closed without a question, the magician shakes his head. When a legitimate question is asked, he rises slowly, moving his head and eyes, and points to a small door behind him which opens to reveal the answer. Uaillardet's Draughtsman-Writer, in the collection of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, is the only example of this category of automata in the United States. The figure, which resembles a child, writes four poems and draws four sketches.

In addition to the creation of androids and similar mechanisms, the eighteenth century saw the increased production of small automata of infinite variety which combined the arts of the mechanician and the jeweler for the pleasure of the wealthy. Cunningly devised little artificial birds enclosed in gold snuff boxes which imitated bird songs, articulated miniature animals decorated with gemstones and enamels, and other related creations were sold in great number during the eighteenth century. Considerable influence on the production of automata was exerted during this period by a new market for Western timepieces and automata that developed in the Orient, to which additional impetus was given by European embassies to the East. Trading in these items developed to extensive proportions. Swiss and English firms in particular produced clocks and automata to fill the growing demands of the Oriental market, establishing offices in Canton and Shanghai for better control of the market for their products well into the nineteenth century.

Production of these intricate creations reached its peak and virtually its conclusion with the work of the last great craftsman in the tradition of automaton making, Carl Faberge (1846-1920). He was Court jeweler and lapidary to Czar Alexander III and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and the numerous novelties and trinkets which he produced made his name famous throughout the world and his handiwork sought by modern museums.

Reaching back from the jeweled Easter eggs and similar creations in miniature of Faberge to their simple beginnings in ancient civilizations, automata spanned a multitude of forms for a variety of purpases. From the first crude religious forms, such as the Egyptian puppets, the Alexandrine temple devices, and the manipulated crucifixes of the fourteenth century; through the functional, such as the Chinese south-pointing chariot; the decorative, as in the water gardens of tile Renaissance; and the diverting and amusing forms of the singing birds and table toys, a linking thought seems to relate them all in one way or another. It is interesting to speculate how many among the countless number of mechanicians who worked to produce automata for whatever purpose may have secretly nurtured an ambition to go a little beyond. Certainly the temptation was always at hand to attempt to create life itself in giving birth to these lifeless figures by a combination of alchemy and mechanics.

Modern thinkers have given serious consideration to the amazing creation of these great mechanicians. Helmholtz, one of the most learned men of the nineteenth century, considered the works of Vaucanson and Jacquet-Droz, for instance, to be comparable to the achievements accomplished in other sciences. He was convinced they had a greater aim in constructing their androids. Although they may not have achieved their goal, he nevertheless felt that they had succeeded in endowing their automata with such other faculties as regularity and durability by the consistency of the metal of which they were made, which was far less fragile than human bone structure.

"However," he went on to add, "nowadays we no longer attempt to construct beings able to perform a thousand human actions, but rather machines able to execute a single action which will replace that of thousands of humans."

A study of the history of automata clearly reveals that several of the basic inventions produced for these attempts to imitate life by mechanical means led to significant developments culminating in modern automation and cybernetics. The invention of cams, for example, which governed the movements of the androids, is applicable to numerous modern automatic machines. Although the cam is a far older invention, attributed originally to Archimedes, its employment by Jacquet-Droz in his group of three figures operating in three fundamental directions, however, resulted in the first machinery having multiple combinations and opened up tremendous possibilities for a great variety of applications.

It is reasonably safe to state that cybernetics was already in a stage of potential realization in the creations of some of the mechanicians of the seventeenth century. Probably the first major step in this direction was taken with the design of thermostatic controls for chemical furnaces and incubators, which is tentatively credited to Cornelius Drebbel (1573-1633) of Holland. A sketch in a manuscript dated 1666 shows an automatic furnace or athanor used as an incubator; this utilized a thermostat filled with alcohol joined to a U-tube containing mercury (see Figure 13). With the increase of heat, the alcohol expanded, forcing the mercury upward to raise a rod and by means of levers to close a damper. When the heat fell too low, the action was reversed by the contraction of the alcohol. Further evidence of the furnace was noted by Balthazar de Monconys, who saw it in 1663, although not in working condition. This is unquestionably the first known example of a feedback mechanism which led to the self-control of mechanical devices.

Another major step forward was taken with the invention of the governor for the steam engine in the late eighteenth century. The subsequent progress into the machine era is simple enough to follow. However, the stage for the machine era may be said to have been centuries earlier with the development of the mill and the clock. The clepsydra, followed by the mechanical clock, must be acknowledged to have been the first automatic realization of which practical application was made, paving the way for subsequent scientific and technological progress.

The role of automata in the progress of technology is therefore of considerable importance. Efforts to imitate life by mechanical means for whatever purpose, resulted in the development of mechanical principles and led to the production of complex mechanisms which have fulfilled technology's original aims -- the reduction or simplification of physical labor.


This article was scanned and edited by Michael Anderson '99