Automaton (plural: automata or automatons) is a self-operating machine, or a machine or control mechanism designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations, or respond to predetermined instructions. Some automata, such as bellstrikers in mechanical clocks, are designed to give the illusion to the casual observer that they are operating under their own power.
The history of automata is vast and complex. While normally I love delving deep into history and passing that research on to my readers, for this blog I will share several links for those who wish to read more about the who, how, why, and where of automata. (links at the end of the post). Instead of the history, this post contains amazing videos of automatons with information on each. In some instances, seeing is better than reading, and with automatons, this is definitely true!
Gold Singing Bird Egg, dated 1807. Hidden inside this extraordinary golden egg is one of the world’s best examples of automata. The one-of-a-kind objet d’art was inspired in part by the mechanical complexity of 19th-century Swiss automata, as well as the opulence of the legendary Fabergé eggs. The sumptuously decorated piece is formed from an astounding 900 grams of 18k yellow, rose and white gold. Inlaid with 7.40 total carats of diamonds and 139 pearls, it also features antique porcelain panels of intricately hand-painted enamel. A rare 18th-century French timepiece is set at its apex; its border of seed pearls, hand-painted porcelain dial, and silver and gold accents beautifully mimic the artistry of the whole. Resting upon a luxurious malachite base, this automaton truly represents the very finest of its genre. Clock movement signed “C. Berthoud a Paris”
Pair of Matching Singing Bird Pistols, dated 1820.
The Writer Automaton, dated 1774. A doll of a young boy that can write. A clockwork creation by Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), a Swiss-born watchmaker of the late eighteenth century.
The Peacock Clock, dated 1780s. Click to YouTube to read full history.
Queen Marie Antoinette, The Dulcimer Player, dated 1784. David Roentgen (1743–1807) took his royal patron by surprise when he delivered this beautiful automaton to King Louis XVI for his queen, Marie Antoinette, in 1784. The cabinetry for this piece is very much a neoclassical masterwork, and the mechanism behind it is truly extraordinary: the figure strikes the strings in perfect rhythm with two small metal hammers held in her hands, which move with great precision. This object is from Musée des arts et métiers de Paris and is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.