Automatons: The Fascinating History of Self-Operating Machines

The Silver Swan and other fascinating automatons (Image: Stephen Allport; the Silver Swan automaton)

The Guardian recently reported on a special guest who was being loaned to London’s Science Museum by the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham. It’s a silver swan, and with more than 2,000 moving parts, the metallic creature has fascinated everyone whose seen it over the last 250 years.

Mark Twain wrote, “I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes, watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop.”

The Silver Swan – which the Bowes Museum reassembled from thousands of pieces with no instructions – is a relatively recent addition to the world of automata. The first records we have of these self-operating machines exist in that strange world between history and legend, dating back to ancient Greece. Hephaestus reportedly created them for his workshop, and even the eagle that ate Prometheus’s liver over and over again has sometimes been described as a mechanical creature.

Centuries later, automatons became the toys of the elite, and some of the most impressive examples of these first generation robots have been compiled by io9. In the mid-16th century, a wood-and-iron monk was introduced to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in the likeness of San Diego de Alcala. The monk, whose prayers were credited with saving the life of the king’s son, was immortalised in an automaton that could both walk and pray.

Automata (Image: via Wikipedia)

Queen Marie Antionette had The Dulcimer Player, a girl dressed in a flowing gown who was programmed to play a series of songs. The most famous might be The Writer, crafted from around 6,000 moving parts by Swiss watchmakers Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and business partner Jean-Frederic Leschot. The Writer still functions today, and can be programmed to spell out any words its owner desires.

Related: Ancient Artifacts? 10 Mysterious Relics Shrouded in Controversy



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