The story of automatons is one of engineering, politics and artistry. These mechanical creatures, made to emulate the movement of living things, were at their high point in the late 1700s, a time when Europe was full of automatons entertaining royalty, teaching moral lessons to citizens, raising philosophical questions and even fomenting revolution.
Automatons were masterpieces of engineering and art. Mechanical wonders that conjured up something bigger than the sum of moving parts. These spectacular creations were made possible by innovations in precision engineering. In the Middle Ages, mechanical clockwork was invented - it was a technology was formed that allowed regular and controlled motion. Mechanical clockwork emerged out of a new type of social organization, the city state, which used clockworks as a vital tool to help regulate and regularize the city populations. The goal was order and governance. A steady beat that drove the pace of these new large urban populations.
The church bells offered a solution - providing a soundscape that united the city and provided regular, predictable structure to the day. Early comparisons were made between clockwork and the human body, with all their beating, fluttering and movement. Automatons were developed by these early mechanical engineers right alongside these clockwork masterpieces. These clockmaker artists created civic horological wonders such as the Zytglogge with complex sculptures driven by complex clockworks. The Zyteglogge is a veritable festival of machinery on parade - with moving characters and animals, complete with the rooster - the old symbol of rural time, mechanized for posterity.
In the 1700s, the automaton became a private affair, made for the exclusive enjoyment for the royalty of Europe. In the 1740s, the Salzburg Hellbrun Palace, an extravagant summer palace - with a garden full of mechanized devices designed to delight the viewers. Yet, the masterpiece is an automaton that is an ENTIRE WORKING CITY! A perfect working society of obedient and predictable citizens.
In the 18th century, clockmakers began to come up with ways to miniaturize the mechanical components. These amazing engineers created ways for even finer movements and machines no longer rooted to the town square or the palace. It's easy to forget that early watch parts - from gear to nearly invisible screws - were all made by hand from plates and blocks of metal by often underpaid clockmakers. Clockworks were made possible through a complex network of artisans. Clockmaking districts would often be located on a street, with each house specializing in a certain component - a spring or gear - made by hand, lit by daylight and candles. A master clockmaker would assemble the final works.
In the course of a couple hundred years, the clockworks went from a fitting in a clocktower to sitting comfortably in the palm of your hand.
1773 Swan Automaton - mind blown:
A master of the automaton was Jacques de Vaucanson, who studied biology to better build automaton mirroring function of the human body. He even made a mechanical digesting duck that could eat seed and excrete a pre-loaded quantity of poop-like material, though the duck did not survive a museum fire. His Flute Player and Tambor Player were his other masterpieces.
This beautiful automaton, known as the Writer, was built by Swiss-born watchmaker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Built in the 1770s, the little boy was composed of 6,000 pieces and was programable.
As time passed, people began to see the automatons so enjoyed by the upper classes not as living wonders but as hollow machines as empty as the rulers themselves. The real talent was in the craftspeople, commoners who had true artistry and talent. Thus, the insult "automaton" was born and the skill of the master clockmakers was finally recognized.
Check out our Clockwork Jewelry - wear a piece of this history of innovation, mechanics and art!