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Historical Watches: Automatons

By Kingsley Walcott

The automaton is a concept that has existed in both myth and reality since as far back as ancient Greece. The word means “acting on one's own will,” and is a term used to describe machines that operate by themselves and without the help of humans. The term “animated puppet” is often used to describe an automaton, and it is also considered to be synonymous with robots, a concept which came into existence in the 20th century. Automatons are popularly identified with machines that look like humans or animals, but they can also come in the form of clocks and other strictly utilitarian devices. The plural forms of automaton are both automatons and automata.

The ancient Greeks worshiped a god known as Hephaestus, who was the god of volcanoes and the patron deity of smiths and craftsmen. Hephaestus was known for a variety of mythical mechanical inventions, including a clay automaton named Pandora. In the Greek epic poem Argonautica, Hephaestus is said to have created Talos, a giant humanoid automaton that kept hostile intruders away from the island of Crete by throwing boulders at approaching ships. Other legends of ancient automata included a mechanical dove created in the fifth century BC by Architus of Tarantum. While the Greeks created many tales of mythical automata, they were responsible for creating real life examples as well. The first analog computer ever known to exist was the astronomical clock called the Antikythera mechanism, which came from the island of Rhodes in ancient Greece around the first century BC. Rhodes was a place that was known for being a center of mechanical engineering prowess. Around two hundred years later in the same region, Heron of Alexandria was a real-life inventor who created a number of machines that were ahead of their time. These included the world's first vending machine, which dispensed holy water whenever someone inserted a coin, and a mechanical theatrical play that ran for ten minutes. In addition he also created the first known wind-powered machine, which was a musical organ.

In the Middle East, an Islamic scientist named Al-Jazari expanded upon the knowledge passed down by the ancient Greeks. In his early 13th century work, the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, he wrote instructions for building dozens of mechanical devices. In addition, he created clocks, mechanical peacocks and the ancient predecessor to automated gates, all of which were powered by moving water. He also invented a mechanical waitress that served water. He invented another automaton, again shaped like a woman, that assisted people with washing their hands. The flushing system that came with this automaton is now used in modern toilets. His more conspicuous inventions included an animated peacock fountain and, most notably, an automated musical band that executed over 50 types of physical actions and facial expressions. The most impressive feature of the automaton-driven music band was that it was programmable by putting pegs, also known as cams, in different positions. Al-Jazari also invented an elephant-shaped, water-powered clock that sounded off every half hour.

Two hundred years later, in 1410, an astronomical clock was built in the city of Prague. In the 17th and 19th centuries, the Prague Astronomical Clock received a series of upgrades which added a number of humanoid automaton-driven features. These included a skeleton which shows its hourglass to a neighboring automaton in the form of a Turkish man at the hour, on the hour. There were also the 12 Apostles, which also appear once every hour from the windows above the clock. Despite extensive damage incurred from attacks by the Nazis during World War II, it is the oldest surviving astronomical clock in the world. Documents found in 1961 indicated that an imperial clock maker named Mikulas and an astronomer named Jan Sindel were responsible for creating the famous device.

Italian scientist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci also contributed a number of automaton inventions and design manuscripts during his lifetime. One of these design manuscripts was for a cart that could move on its own. To date no one has been able to deduce its exact purpose, however it is widely thought that it was designed for use in theatrical plays. In 1495 he presented to Duke Sforza a mechanical knight that could sit and stand, move its arms, and lift a visor. His design plans for this automaton were discovered in 1957 by Italian historian Carlo Pedretti, and a working model was created in 2002 which showed that da Vinci's creation did indeed work. Leonardo da Vinci also created two mechanical lions, the first being a gift to King Louis XII of France in 1509, and the second being for King Francois I in 1515.

One of the oddest automata ever created was the invention of Jacques de Vaucanson, a French inventor in the 18th century. In 1739 he created the Canard Digerateur, known in English as the Digesting Duck, in order to prove his belief that animals were little more than complex machines. The Canard Digerateur supposedly ate grains and defecated what was left later on. In reality, however, it was a phony invention, as it didn't digest anything. In the same century, a Swiss clock maker named Henri Maillardet built an automaton in the form of a jester sitting at a desk. Known only as the Maillardet Automaton, it was designed to sketch images as well as write poems. When it was delivered to the Franklin Institute in 1928, it had been damaged beyond repair by a fire, and needed to be restored. Once restored, it proceeded to identify its previously unknown creator by writing "Ecrit par l'Automate de Maillardet” which translates in English to "Written by the Automaton of Maillardet."

In 1770, a wily Hungarian inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen created a machine called The Turk, also known as the Mechanical Turk. The Mechanical Turk, made in Vienna, Austria, was billed as an automaton that could play chess. The machine appeared to be a life-sized Middle Eastern magician with a turban and a black beard. Every performance began with an elaborate showing of its inner parts which was intended to prove to the crowd that it was truly a machine. The Turk was first presented to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, where it swiftly defeated Count Cobenzl. The so-called chess-playing automaton toured the world playing against various opponents, including famous men like Charles Babbage, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. It won most games it played, usually within half an hour. The Turk was discovered to be a human-operated hoax only after 50 years of operation, by a mechanical engineer named Robert Willis. The Turk inspired Charles Babbage to embark on his quest to build a computer, which would come to be called the Difference Engine. It was eventually destroyed in a fire, but when it was recreated in 1984, it no longer had a human operator, and was truly run by a chess-playing computer. 

The 20th century saw the creation of much more complex and popular automata, primarily for entertainment purposes. Walt Disney trademarked his company's automaton inventions as “Audio-Animatronics” to distinguish them as more advanced versions of automata. In 1963, Disneyland in Anaheim, California opened a Polynesian-themed exhibit called the Enchanted Tiki Room. The original version of this automaton-driven exhibit featured over a hundred birds and flowers, all of which sang, talked and danced, all without the use of digital circuitry or computers. In addition, there were animated totem poles and drummers, as well as automata representing Hawaiian gods. The 15 minute long Enchanted Tiki Room exhibit proved to be a spectacular success, and is still operating today at the Anaheim, California Disneyland and Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. As of 2012, the Enchanted Tiki Room features an Audio-Animatronics cast of six cockatoos, a dozen toucans, over 50 animated orchids, four totem poles, a dozen tiki drummers, 24 tiki masks, eight macaws, and dozens of other tropical birds. The amount of people who came to see the original Enchanted Tiki Room attractions made it one of the most popular non-computerized, automaton-driven exhibits in the world.

One of the foremost modern-day artists specializing in automaton designs is a Phoenix, Arizona-born artist named Thomas Kuntz. The fourth child of a surgeon and a doll maker, Kuntz developed an early interest in anatomy and sketching that eventually led him to a career making models of macabre and occult figures. He has done animatronics work and live shows for music groups like Skinny Puppy and Ohgr, and his fortune-teller automaton, “L'Oracle du Mort,” appeared on the Martha Stewart show on Halloween. His other works include the “Chinese Firebreather,” the “Levitating Head,” “The Great Kundalini,” and the smoking automaton known as “Jafar.” His most notable work is called the “Alchemyst's Clock Tower,” a theater set nearly 10 feet tall. It features a mechanical magician that stands one foot high that performs a variety of tricks, including summoning fire demons and optical illusions, all while interacting with spectators. Kuntz produces his animated puppets through his company, Artomics Creations.

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