From the Greek automatos, “moves on its own”, the automaton has a unique character. An exterior force manipulates other artificial beings, but the automaton exhibits its own life/energy and, since its mechanism is hidden, it awakens awe. From antiquity, the automaton has had this double aspect of revealing the divine and providing a realistic scenic machine. The Greek Deus ex machina, literally “god appearing by means of a machine”, is a dramaturgical device that “miraculously” resolves a plot without revealing the principles or mechanisms of this apparition – divine and yet interfacing with this world.

We find the idea far beyond Europe: in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China Chaoye qianzai (Comprehensive Record of the Affairs in and without the Court) written by Zhang Zhuo gives events between Wu Zetian’s (624-705) and Xuanzong’s (685-762) reigns, and tells of a rattling wooden monk holding a begging bowl full of copper coins created by a master artisan. We also find Tang era reports of water puppets that have water powered mechanism and, though this genre seems to have faded long ago in China, we find elaborate water puppets that can run on tracks beneath the surface to the present in Vietnam which shared this distinctive art. Throughout East Asia we have reports of mechanical figures sometimes associated with chariots displayed during festival periods like the Japanese karakuri ningyō or sometimes in theatres where elaborate clockwork figures were displayed by the 16th-18th centuries or in the possession of the elite, with small tea servers or archers as precious wonders. As in the West, we find the people who display these figures have overlap with the engineering innovators (consider for example of the 19th century by engineer and inventor Hisashige Tanaka 1799-1881 who created such figures and who is recognized as the founder of the contemporary Toshiba Corporation). Though this article focuses on Euro-American showmen, the ideas and fascination with the mechanical doll has a wider history.

The idea of an automatic system in performance came long before the elaborate machinery of the grand Baroque in Europe. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle uses the term thaumata for automatic marvels that arouse surprise and cause philosophical reflection, while Plato refers to the metaphor of the “mechanical” organism and the idea of a human being operated by elastic cords (neura, “nerves”), the passions. The anatomist Erasistratus (3rd century BCE) saw man as a machine operated according to a pneumatic system in which the heart was the source of heat. The development of “pneumatics”, which exploited the properties of liquids, vapour and compressed air (warmed by fire), led to little mechanical devices, “marvels” that one could find in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. At Delphi these animated statues still belong to religion; but by the 1st century CE, Heron of Alexandria, in his treatise on the automaton (Automata), gave the first example of mechanical theatre, a device on a fixed base with refined figures, moved by wheels and cylinders operated by the action of sand. This mechanical device – designed along the lines of the principles of the water clock – was prelude to the grand inventions of the Renaissance. Heron’s treatise was translated by Bernardino Baldi in 1589, while one year earlier, in 1588, the first book on automatons in the early modern era appeared: Le Diverse et Artificiose Macchine (Machines Diverse and Artificial) by Agostino Ramelli. Finally, we must remember that the Greek word thaumatopoios (as also thaumatourgos) signified “a maker of wonders” that could also be translated as “one who does a balancing act”, “juggler”, “acrobat”, or even “puppet showman” – in the Christian era, thaumaturge has even been interpreted as “miracle worker”.

The construction of androids (robots), automatons, or anthropomorphic mechanical figures shows the aspirations of man to measure himself against the creator God.

This ambition is present in myths that predate the actual creation of elaborate humanoid machines: Daedalus is the inventor of the first “flying machine” and Hephaestus/Vulcan, Zeus’s blacksmith, is creator of the bronze giant Talos who protected Europe on Crete. The mobile statues of ancient Egypt also evoked a divine simulacrum (see Egypt) and the spirit of the statue, the breath that moved it, was called ka.

From the Middle Ages to the 17th Century

In 13th century Europe, and especially Sicily, a treatise on “ingenious mechanisms” by the Arab scholar Al-Jazari was a definitive text. It discussed refined mechanical animals for decorating gardens including singing birds: these were ancestors of the artificial animals that were found in Renaissance and Baroque gardens. Renaissance myth and literature was fascinated with the technical. In the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, 1499) by Francesco Colonna, Poliphilo is “attacked” by a jet of water from a statue in a thermal garden: he encounters the curious hydraulic movement and water organs of the Villa di Pratolino in Vaglia, Tuscany (1569) which astounded visitors like Montaigne in 1580. Such mechanisms were imitated in other European gardens, for example, at Hellbrunn Palace near Salzburg, Austria in the 17th century where playful jets of water and water organs surprised visitors. Such inventions migrated to mechanics of theatre in the middle of the 18th century. Numerous figures were operated by a hydraulic system while grottoes sheltered mythic characters and artificial moving animals.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, mechanical apparatuses became “wonders” of princes and nobles: lions, lobsters, moving turtles, dancers, mythological characters, mechanical Nativity scenes, triumphal chariots, flying or twittering birds, musical clocks, etc., made up this diverse ensemble of objects that were often found in the palace Wundernkammern or cabinets of curiosities. The more familiar figures of the Jacquemarts (Jack of the Clock or bell striker) – metal figures that beat the hour on a bell on churches and belfries to mark human time – do not enter into this category of marvels. Sacred representations (for example in the Assumption of Dieppe, from 1443 to 1647 see [lier]France[/lier]) also used mechanical figures, and attempts to create mechanical music go back to the Baroque period with Giovambattista Della Porta (1535-1615), Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), and Kaspar Schott (1608-1666).

The Renaissance also had growing interest in anatomy and body mechanisms, for example, the wax anatomical modelling of the Scorticato (Flayed Man) by Lodovico Cardi (known as Cigoli) from around 1598 which reveals the organs beneath the skin. At the end of the 17th century, the anatomist Lorenzo Bellini (1643-1704) explained the functioning of osteoarticulation by comparing it to a mechanical theatre, citing the hydraulic machines of the Tuscan Villa di Pratolino mentioned earlier. Scientific knowledge of course has its own theatrical dimension – consider the “anatomical theatre” where students could observe dissections of cadavers while studying medicine – and scientism influences literary myths, as demonstrated by the journey of the idea of the miniature man, homunculus, all the way from Paracelsus (1493-1541) to Goethe’s Faust (1832). These are not automata per se, but evince a continued fascination with such overlaps.

The Golden Age of Automatons: 18th and 19th Centuries

In the 18th century the idea of man as machine (and the machine’s surpassing man) is elaborated in the writings and research on the arteries by doctor and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751). In L’Homme machine (Machine Man, 1748), he sees the idea of the soul, a “useless hypothesis”. He acknowledges only the organs of the body, and sees human beings as an ensemble of automatic impulses – each fibre operates involuntarily on its own. Mental processes are effects of organic changes in the brain and nervous system, matter and thought are one. This idea is essential in the development of thinking of man as “mechanism” and opened the way to materialism.

In the18th century science and technology also serve playful and diverting ends. French inventor and artist Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) built automata that would serve dinner and clear the tables. His Flautist (1737) played the tabor and pipe and had a repertory of twelve songs. His Digesting Duck (1739) could eat, defecate, flap its wings and, with some 400 moving parts, was considered his masterpiece: Voltaire wrote “without … the duck of Vaucanson, you will have nothing to remind you of the glory of France!” Others of course were part of this fashionable mania for the mechanical in France (landscapes with moving figures, magi that could speak) through the figures of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), his son Henri-Louis (1752-1791), and Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1746-1824) around 1770. The Musician, the Writer, the Draughtsman (currently at the Museum of Neuchâtel in Switzerland) mechanically reproduced human tasks. The images toured in European countries to a public ready to pay for viewing such marvels. Such mechanical actors, presented by “showmen-impresarios”, dealt in the wonder of earlier curiosities, but reproducing real behaviour was more emphasized as the eyes of the writer followed the writing and face and hair become more life-like.

As Vaucanson’s Duck, presented in 1738, made such a stir that it provoked serious debates on the process of digestion; eventually the “trick” of the clever builder was revealed: the food was not actually transformed into faeces, but hidden in a box inside. In the 19th century, Vaucanson’s Duck was restored by the French illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), whose “magic” embodied this ongoing marriage between refined technical work and the spectacular trick as he made orange trees bloom before the eyes of spectators and trapeze artists fly through the air with ease and without visible link to a manipulator.

The automaton both imitates and surpasses the human. Technology gives the illusion of the superiority and leads people to view the automaton as a superhuman, full of fascination and danger. In the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), the most important builders of automatons developed such ideas, which were then inherited by the Romantics of the late 18th to mid-19th century. They explored the imaginary, demoniacal and supernatural characteristics of such creatures. The Turk, also known as the Mechanical Turk or Automaton Chess Player, created in 1770 and presented publically for 84 years until destroyed by a fire in 1854, was a work of Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804). It was first presented at the Viennese court, and in its time played such partners as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. Eventually exposed as a hoax, this chess-playing device was actually operated by a chess master who hid inside and moved the player dressed in oriental garb. The performance combined a sophisticated mechanism capable of life-like body gestures (pipe smoking), subtle staging and lighting effects of the period. The show hypnotized spectators who saw The Turk’s resemblance to a living being and let go of their doubts before the mysterious “intelligence” of this artificial being. Romantic writers commented on its disquieting and demonic aspects: Edgar Allan Poe saw it in 1836 when it was being presented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838), the son of an organ builder who had purchased it in 1805. Poe’s “Maelzel’s Chess Player” (1836) accessed the impression of the machine created by its dimensions and traits of The Turk himself, emphasizing a rational mind was in control: Poe in this piece was developing techniques he used in mystery literature and which developed toward science fiction.

A poetic and theatrical aspect marks automaton presentations that captivated the imagination and stayed well in fashion up to the middle of the 19th century. Figures were often from the world of entertainment – dancers, Pierrots, clowns, acrobats or musicians. George Sand, in her Le Thèâtre des marionnettes de Nohant (The Puppet Theatre of Nohant, 1876), tells of seeing in Venice in 1834 “knight dramas done by marvellous automatons”. The show was given in a town square: “There were wise little machines, knights one foot high throwing themselves into equestrian combats, ladies flowing with gold and precious gems, giving the prize to the winner, pages sounding the horns from the tops of the towers.” Verses from Tasso or Ariosto were “yelled out in the house to explain the action”, so this was a textual as well as performative spectacle.

Romantic and Symbolist writers contributed to the lore of the automaton with fantastic and esoteric tones. From Jean-Paul with his “man of machines” (Palingenesis, 1798) and E.T.A. Hoffmann (Die Automate The Automatons, 1814; Der Sandmann The Sandman, 1817 with his mechanical Olympia the inspiration for the ballet Coppélia), up to Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (L’Ève future The Future Eve, 1886) the theme repeats.

Such stories linked to the taste for illusion and magic in the period. The most famous automatons of the 19th century were, without doubt, those of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Son of a watchmaker, fascinated by mechanisms, he restored Vaucanson’s Duck and other old automatons, but also created his own for his “Soirées fantastiques” where one could see illusionist acts, string puppets (marionettes), and his automatons as previously noted. The Conjuror, The Rope Dancer, The Singing Bird, etc., built Robert-Houdin’s reputation to the point that he was sent to North Africa to diminish the influence of the marabouts (Muslim religious leaders and teachers to whom were ascribed magical powers) due to his superior “powers”. French colonialism sought thereby to show European magical-mechanical marvels superior to indigenous practices.

Automatons in the Industrial Era

During the course of the 19th century, automatons entered the industrial era and their entertainment function prevailed. In contrast to the grand creations for showmen or the elite of the previous century, they were increasingly mass-produced and often for private use (associated with music boxes) and seen increasingly as passive machines. Function was emphasized and in literature we start to see the theme of the machine that turns against its master. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is an example of the rebellion of the artificial son against the father, the destructive relationship between creator and creature. In the increasingly industrialized and technologized society, the automaton became the carrier of a dangerous force; the Golem found renewed interest in Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 book of the same title. Expressionist filmmakers of course took up the theme in cinema.

Then came the robot, derived from a Czech word (robotnik: worker), and Karel Čapek’s play RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots), created at the National Theatre of Prague in 1921. These robots with feeling are in revolt (this theme appears also with Romain Rolland in La Révolte des machines The Revolt of the Machines, 1921), and are not the graceful automatons of the 18th century but descendants of the unsettling androids of Romanticism. Consider for example the figure of Maria created by the wise fool Rotwang to spread discord amongst the workers in Fritz Lang’s 1926 film, Metropolis. The relationship between the living and artificial becomes increasingly worrisome (i.e. removal of the personality by doubles) in contemporary works.

However Futurism, by contrast, embraced the “mechanical” model in the first half of the 20th century and positively valued its rhythm, measure, and dynamics to liberate a joyous and vital energy. Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics and above all efforts of the Russian avant-garde group FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) in the 1920s have the same enthusiasm for the machine. Mass communication, montage and the necessity of movement are concepts: the FEKS actor rejected all that was superfluous to the achievement of a goal, as a result, his movements were close to those of the automaton.  The ideas of Rudolph Laban (1879-1958), exploited in industry as well as art, see this mechanical approach to body and economy of movement as well.

The deformation of the human in its mechanical form appeared also in other artistic movements. The technique of montage (used by Arthur Schnitzler, Oskar Kokoschka, Yvan Goll, and the Dada movement), in literature as in theatre, represented a remarkable formal process that an artificial being could be assembled independent of any logical or sequential order. Even dramatic structure became “automatic”, a schema that we find in Raymon Roussel’s Impressions Afrique (African Impressions, 1910), surrealists, and automatic writing: the imaginary and the unconscious resurface, traits characteristic of the universe of automatons.

The Contemporary Stage

Automatons ideally go beyond just appearance and movements of living creatures but also recreate their functions and abilities. This is the fascination of Vaucancon’s Duck and Kempelen’s Turk. Function brought on the industrial robots of the 20th century and research in cybernetics and artificial intelligence seeks it. Electronics, random systems, and self-learning machines permit us to represent and evoke, even if it is only an illusion, real life responding to real situations.

Nicolas Schöffer, in 1948, explored space (“spatiodynamism”); in 1956, light (“luminodynamism”) and in 1960, time (“chronodynamism”). He created sculptures whose movements were operated by one or another of these parameters. Programmed alternation of these processes disrupted the environment.

Jean Tinguely created spectacular animated sculptures from scrap metal and diverse materials. Meta-Matic 17 wheeled itself around the colonnade of the Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of the first Paris Biennial in 1959. This automaton, “an odiferous and sonorous automobile”, was a drawing machine on wheels that produced “concrete” poetry traced by a crazy paintbrush, automatic and random. 40,000 paintings flew out from this mechanical artist. In 1960, Tinguely conceived Va et vient (Come and Go), a mechanical assemblage equipped with a motor and with a counterweight, and then went as far as to create suicide-machines that were explosive and would self-destruct. The mechanics were accompanied by gaily-coloured sculpture of his companion, Niki de Saint-Phalle. Operated by water pressure, these automatons spatter in the pool at Igor Stravinsky Place near the Pompidou Centre in Paris. These aesthetic experiments come close to those of Harry Kramer who, at the Festival of Brunswick in 1957, presented his Mechanical Theatre.

Between 1975 and 1979, Jacques Monestier built a famous automaton, that of the Quartier de l’Horloge, near the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This animated clock, in brass and bronze, weighs one ton and measures 4 metres high. It represents Le Défenseur du Temps (The Defender of Time) in battle with a dragon, a crab and a cock, symbolizing earth, sea and sky. The works is regulated by a chance programmer, and an electronic master clock commands the movements of the hands as well as six cam timers, tape recorders that play the dragon’s breathing and growling, the sound of the waves, the blowing of the wind. The Defender of Time is moved via pneumatics, to fight these menacing animals that attack at random. Jacques Monestier also created the clock of Le Grand Marionnettiste (The Great Puppeteer) for the Puppet Festival in Charleville-Mézières, France.

As for Denis Pondruel (b.1949), he tried through his experiments to escape what he called the “théâtre-horloge” or “clock-theatre” to get closer to “bomb” theatre, close to an object theatre, non-figurative, bringing all his attention to the work. In December 1980, he presented Pierre Corneille’s tragicomedy, Le Cid (The Cid), at the Centre d’action culturelle de Cergy-Pontoise (The Centre for Cultural Action of Cergy-Pontoise) in a strange staging. On a long metallic table stood a train track with the heroine Chimène at one end and Don Fernand (King of Castille) and his court at the other. A cart on wheels allowed for the crossing of the characters. Other shorter perpendicular tracks corresponded with Rodrigue, Don Diègue, Don Gormas, and the Moors, who were in fact forms of steel. This consisted of a programmed electromechanical system containing lights and sound. The programmes, based on a linguistic study of Corneille’s text, coordinated the behaviour of the “object-actors” and generated “a cybernetic version of the theatrical presentation”. This staging therefore tended to use the objects as elements of a vocabulary coordinated by a coherent grammar. These “puppets” evolved, showing their capability to handle logical thought and intervene in the events of their destiny.

New technologies founded on cybernetics and artificial intelligence offer contemporary creators experimentation and rich possibilities, but can also lead to confusion. For instance, Albert Ducrocq and his Renard cybernétique (Electronic Fox, 1959), like his French predecessors, sought “to reproduce many fundamental mechanisms of cerebral action”. An ambition that we find in some of the most recent research and creations in digital imagery and in new interactive and virtual puppets. If we look at the robot plays of Hirata Oriza of the Center for the Study of Communication-Design of Osaka University and director of the Japan Playwrights Association or contemplate Masahiro Mori‘s idea of the uncanny valley – a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings it causes a sense of revulsion and yet fascination – we revisit the fascination and trepidation that surround the automaton over its long history.


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