Friday, January 14, 2005

The automaton phenomenon

If you were rich, and inclined to be somewhat unhinged in a rather scary way, you would surely have a house full of automata.

They're the sort of thing that any wealthy but sinister person really ought to have. They're interesting, expensive to collect, and there's nothing like a room full of them to scare the living daylights out of anyone who comes to visit you. Plus, come on, they come alive when there's no-one around. You know they do.

you should be glad you have images turned off because you won't see the scary automaton here

There's a gallery of automata here at the linguistics department of New York University (as part of a course on 'the origins of the mind/body problem and on the mechanical analogies of mind').

The Lycette Brothers have a rather wonderful and beautifully designed Modern Compendium Of Miniature Automata. The site requires Flash, but it's worth a visit. Nothing to do with automata but I did like their Illustrated Alphabet of Unfortunate Chance (this one requires Shockwave).

The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre have two virtual exhibitions as well as lots of links, educational materials and projects, and kits to build your own automata (but don't, because they'll only come alive at night and scuttle around your house and into your dreams).

The very sceptical James Randi explains how the famous fabulous automaton chess player of the 1820s, a mechanical man who regularly defeated some highly-ranked players of the day, *really* worked. Although I don't actually believe James Randi exists; I think he's all done with mirrors. (Part two of his commentary is here.)

I've seen this one. It's a silver swan on a stream of twisted glass, that twists its head, preens its back, and then catches a fish. But according to the website it's all illusion (well, you might have got that from the whole made-of-metal thing) because get this: "In real life, swans do not eat fish". Which now has me wondering what swans do eat. Anyway, you can watch a video (needs Realplayer) of the fake swan spreading its heinously false ecological propaganda.

Karakuri are Japanese automata that do such things as serve tea, stand on their hands on pine branches, and have noble countenances.

The Faulty Optic Theatre of Animation say that they are world-renowned for their haunting visual theatre, automated sets, strange animated figures, cronked inventions and macabre humour. Some of the animated figures remind me of a puppet production I saw when I was little. It scared the blood out of my veins, and I can't remember much more than that. Single scariest thing of my childhood other than the scary drumming bus conductors who made me cry.

The website for the Modern Automata Museum is in Italian, but has links to lots of automata artists and places where you can buy their work.

Dug North is an artist making automata from wood. Dug says "There are resources on this site for people who would like to learn more about automaton-making, including book reviews,a list of tools, links to other sites, and helpful articles I've written."

Michael and Maria Stuart's Automatomania is full of all sorts of interesting bits and pieces on automata and mechanical singing birds. And if you think that automata are ever so slightly creepy, then you're not going to like the clown automaton in the Antique Automata category.

Flying Pig sell kits to make paper and card automata. They even have free downloads to print off on your printer at home.



At 1:19 PM, Blogger Luís Rodrigues said...

Speaking of the chess-player automaton, I think a link to Edgar Allan Poe's piece debunking it is in order:

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Luís Rodrigues said...

Hero of Alexandria deserves a mention as well:

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Also Francois Junot

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Rob MacD said...

Wow. Great post! I wish this had been up before I wrote my own long post about the Turk and various other automata:, Rob

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks all, for some great extra links. And Rob - that's a fascinating article, and one that's a lot more thoughtful than mine!



At 6:09 AM, Blogger Joe said...

Hi, Iain, not another link as such, but on the automata subject there were a couple of very good books a couple of years back (you ait ages for 18th century automata books then 2 come along at once). Living Dolls by Gabby Wood and The Mechanical Turk by Tom Standage.

Both utterly absorbing and fascinating - Wood has a nice coda where she visits a cutting edge, modern robotics lab in Japan and the scientists refuse to believe the 18th century automata could possibly have been as sophisticated as they claimed and an encounter with 1930s 'freakshow' carnival midgets who looked so perfectly proportioned that the audiencees often thought they were mechanical counterfeits and not real midgets (as opposed to those in the 18th and 19th C who thought the mechanical devices to realistic and there must be some person inside).

If anyone is interested (since we're posting links) I reviewed them ages back on the Alien Online: (Liv. Dolls) and (Mech Turk)
Joe, Edinburgh
p.s. thank you for posting the Waterstone's article, it's appreciated.

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Neil Hardy said...

Heh,not all automatas are creepy! I have been making them for 15 years and I still get a goods nights sleep. There are some pieces of mine in the Modern Automata museun in Italy linked above and mine don't scare anybody! Not that I bother to make them anymore, they just assemble themselves in my workshop at night. Don't be to scared to have a look at my site

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At 1:35 AM, Blogger Nikola said...

What is automaton anyway? Does it have something to do with general auto insurance

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