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10 Most Fascinating Antique Automatons

Humanity has always sought to fathom the mystery of life, that divine breath that makes us move, breath, play, and create. Man always wanted his seat among the gods, and thus, he attempted to create life from nothing. Automatons, mechanical being made from wood and steel, are perhaps the finest expression of humanity’s desire to emulate nature.

History reveals that the first automatons were created in Ancient China and Greece. Unfortunately, only one automaton from Hellenistic Greece survived – the Antikythera mechanism or clock, which was discovered on a shipwreck at the beginning of the 20th century.

As time crept by, automatons became more intricate, with some of them having their own legends. And because the art of automata is a fascinating one, I have decided to show you my favorite automatons and their stories. So, without further ado, here are 10 of the fascinating mechanical beings.

The Mechanical Chess-Playing Turk

Built by the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen, the Mechanical Turk was presented as a gift to Empress Maria Theresia of Austria in 1770. Kempelen claimed that the machine dressed in oriental garments could best every human opponent. And it did – for decades, the Turk won every chess tournament, being deemed a mechanical wonder.

It was later discovered that the machine was, in fact, a hoax – the unbeatable chess player was operated by a talented chess master, who hid inside the cabinet on which the chessboard was mounted. From there, he would move the Turk’s hand using a lever.

Albeit a hoax, the Mechanical Turk remains one of the fascinating automatons out there. Did you know that the myths surrounding the oriental chess players inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write the short story Maelzel’s Chess Player?

The Writer

Also called the Jaquet-Droz, the Writer is perhaps one of the most peculiar automatons out there. The boy, with a marble-like face and a demeanor reminiscent of the 18th bourgeoisie, sits calmly in front of his writing desk, just waiting to write his next letter.

This automaton, which sums more than 6000 moving parts, can write any kind of text and in any language. The text, which can have up to 40characters, are written on charred paper with a goose feather.

To make the boy write, you will need to inscribe the text on a special cylinder which is mounted in the back. The most astounding thing about this automaton is that it moves its eyes to follow the text while writing.

The Musician

Another Jaquet-Droz automaton, The Musician is a female organist can play several tuners on the custom-built instrument. This automaton is so life-like that it’s capable of breathing, moving its fingers, tilting its head, and balancing its torso during the performance.

Da Vinci’s Mechanical Knight

Leonardo da Vinci’s interests spanned across many fields: architecture, warfare, engineering, medicine, and robotics. Among his sketches, a group of NASA roboticists found the blueprint for a mechanical Germanic Knight. According to da Vinci’s plans, the knight would have been able to sit, stand, move, lift its visor, and even cross its arms.

It’s still unclear whether Leonardo managed to construct the mechanical knight or not.  Upon consulting his sketches, Mark Rosheim of NASA managed to construct a fully operational knight in 2002. The automaton, called the Rosheim Knight, is powered by a set of cranks, gears, cables, and pulleys.

The Mechanical Monk

Built around 1560 by Spanish watchmaker Juanelo Turriano, the mechanical monk remained somewhat of a mystery until late 1977, when it was moved from Geneva to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History of Technology for research. Powered by a complex set of gears, Turriano’s monk continues to fascinate with its life-like movements.

There’s even a great story that goes along with this mechanical marvel. The monk was Turriano’s gift to King Philip II. Soon after receiving the monk, the king’s son suffered a terrible accident. The heartbroken father prayed day and night for his son’s recovery. Apparently, the monk never left the child’s bedside, and his speedy recovery is attributed to the automaton, which never stopped praying in penance.

Sultan Tipu’s Mechanical Tiger

Unfortunately, no one knows for certain who crafted this automaton. Historical records reveal that it was part of Sultan Tipu’s curio cabinet. The Sultan, who was the ruler of Mysore, saw in this tiger a symbol of leadership and assured victory against the East India Company.

The automaton features a British soldier mauled to death by a Bengal tiger. Upon a closer look, the mechanism reveals a hidden sound cylinder and several gears which make the soldier squirm and emit a dying groan. Tipu’s tiger is currently on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Vaucanson’s Grain-Eating Duck

Human ingenuity knows no boundaries, a fact proven by French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson. At the beginning of the 18th century, Vaucanson managed to amaze the French audience with his Digesting Duck, a copper-plated automaton that could eat swim, flap its wings, eat grain from the hand, and defecated pellets on a platter.

The automaton was powered by weighs, levers, and cams. Moreover, the digestive process relied on rubber tubing – food would pass through the tubing, pushing the pellets out the back.

The Dulcimer Player

Invented around 1784 by master cabinetmaker David Roentgen, The Dulcimer Player was presented as a gift to Marie-Antoinette.  The female dulcimer player with an uncanny resemblance to the Queen of France can play eight different tunes and move her head during her performance. If you’re interested in seeing the Dulcimer Player in action, it’s currently on display at Paris’ Musee des Arts et Metiers.

Al-Jazari’s Floating Musicians

Although the automaton itself did not survive, according to the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Device, the floating orchestra, which was the last creation of Al-Jazari, a 12th-century mathematician, artisan, and inventor, was one of the most prominent inventions of what historians call the Islamic Golden Age.

According to the schematics, the peg-powered device was capable of floating on any body of water and even move around thank its crew. The floating band features a flutist, a harpist, and two drummers.

The draughtsman

The third Jaquet-Droz automate, features a young boy standing in front of a desk. Quill in hand, the automata are capable of drawing four images: a small dog, a royal couple, Louis XV’s portrait, an idyllic scene featuring Cupid in a butterfly-pulled chariot. Apart from drawing, the draughtsman can also move back and forth on his chair and blow on the pencil.

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About Vladimir Unterfingher

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