All About Automata: Mechanical Magic (With Action Videos)
Automatons: magical mysteries of the ancient world, mechanical curiosities of the medieval, modern marvels of master craftsman. Okay, enough alliteration.
Automatons, automata, robots, automatic machines: all these words describe a class of machine that is considered to be relatively self-operating and can perform pre-programmed functions or operations thanks to a series of predetermined mechanical instructions.
Grammar nerd side note: automatons and automata are both legitimate plural versions of automaton; “automat,” however, is a type of self-service restaurant that looks like a vending machine in which food is provided in small compartments that open when coins are inserted.
Automata can come in all shapes and sizes and can do nearly anything one can imagine and engineer into a mechanical system.
The automata that I’d like to focus on are sophisticated versions of a few you might be familiar with, like cuckoo clocks (little chirping birds that pop out of doors to chime the hour) or simple hand-cranked desk toys of animals (such as horses, birds, or fish) and fun scenes.
Historical automata include music boxes with little figurines, mechanical chirping birds, and the highly complex and awe-inspiring humanoid creations of Pierre Jaquet-Droz that draw pictures, write phrases, or play instruments.
I’ll cover more examples later, but first let’s walk through the history of automatons from the beginning.
History of automata
Clever engineers and craftsman have been building automatons for a long time, with some accounts showing up as early as circa 1000 BCE, over 3000 years ago.
Sadly, examples from ancient cultures such as China, Greece, and Rome are either lost to history or only survive via writings, drawings, and paintings. One might include in the discussion the ancient Antikythera mechanism from around 100 BCE, but since this was likely not an automatic machine but a complex counting and calculating machine, I don’t include it here.
The earliest objects were often created as religious machines to demonstrate the power of a leader or to invoke a spiritual experience when visiting a holy place such as a temple. Yet even in the first century CE, Hero of Alexandria, famous for his contributions to science, math and engineering, created a mechanical stage play that utilized ropes with knots, cogwheels, and other simple machines to complete an entire performance claimed to have lasted for ten minutes.
Using his expertise with hydraulics, pneumatics, and mechanisms, Hero invented machines that performed tasks aside from just entertaining such as a programmable self-driving cart, a vending machine, a wind-powered organ, and various machines of war.
This is often the parallel history of automata: the playful side mixed with invention and engineering to inspire and show off mechanical progress in fun and sometimes magical ways.
Depending on when and where in history, automatons could be viewed with suspicion by superstitious commoners since many would have no first-hand experience with such contraptions. This meant stories of magical statues or miracles would spread throughout a population when in fact it was a clever device designed to mimic a mystical experience.
During medieval times when much of the “western” world lost the skills and know-how to create such machines, the Byzantine and wider Arabic-speaking world continued the traditions of the Greeks (and likely the Chinese thanks to trade with the Far East), creating similar machines and writing treatises like the Book on Ingenious Devices circa 850 CE in what is now Iraq.
The automatons created by Muslim engineers and inventors are truly incredible, predating many of the well-known western examples by centuries. The Islamic Golden Age, dating from around 780-1260 CE, saw an explosion in scientific advances rivaling any throughout history: they are the basis for much of western scientific tradition.
Automata from the time and geographical area included examples such as wind-powered statues, artificial creatures like snakes, scorpions, and singing birds, a programmable flute player, a boat with a “four-person” robot band, and the more practical hand-washing automaton with a modern flushing mechanism.
China had automaton traditions for possibly two millennia by this point and was producing automata of roaring tigers, singing birds, flying birds, and even complex water clocks with figures that chimed the hours.
Descriptions exist of automatic mechanical puppet shows, full automaton orchestras, and mechanical dragons to name a few. Sadly, much of what was created or documented was later destroyed by the conquering Ming dynasty in the mid-fourteenth century, resulting in much being lost to history.
And while pockets of Europe still had a tradition with automatons, in the thirteenth century interest reignited in creations and devices designed to astound visitors, which appeared again in courts across Europe.
This timing is believed to be in largely influenced by Greek texts translated into Latin and Italian, which sparked interest in the ancient mathematicians’ and inventors’ creations. The famed resurgence of automata occurred during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.
The renaissance of automata
Previously, automaton technology was powered by hydraulics (water), pneumatics (wind and steam), or gravity (via weights), which drastically limited the devices’ complexity and size. Very small and complex automata would need new technologies to emerge.
With the more advanced systems of engineering, mathematics, and crafts such as clockmaking mixed with the science of metallurgy (for the crafting of springs) being adopted widely, the ability to create truly complex (and beautiful) machines flourished.
For a few hundred years we entered what I consider to be the golden age of the automaton when some of the most famous examples still in existence were constructed. There are so many fine examples that many might believe the concept of automata was largely borne of the era.
From the early fifteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, automata were developed right alongside clocks, watches, and industrial machinery in a parallel trajectory, unofficially tracing the progress of innovation and mechanical invention.
Japan and China were still strong in this area, even after dynastic unrest, and fantastic examples are still being discovered from this period. In Japan, the practice of mechanical “karakuri” puppets had a long tradition from the middle of the 1660s all the way through to the beginning of the twentieth century.
Tool makers, clockmakers, locksmiths, inventors, and even magicians created some truly astonishing automata, though still along similar lines as what came hundreds to thousands of years before, only now more compact and more complex.
The invention of the modern cuckoo clock occurred during this period, possibly as a development from earlier examples of large town clocks where animated figures were included in famous machines like the astronomical clocks of Strasbourg and Prague. A gilded rooster from the first version of Strasbourg’s most famous cathedral element, which now resides in the city’s museum for decorative arts, is considered the oldest preserved automaton in the world.
Both life sized and more miniature machines appeared, spurred on by philosophical ideas from the likes of René Descartes, who suggested that animals are just complex biomechanical machines and could be built.
This was not an entirely new idea, but it did lead to an emphasis on animal automata, some of which pushed the bounds of what had been considered before. One interesting example is the Digesting Duck, which acted like a duck in many ways, but most uniquely included eating pellets of food and then seemingly defecating later on.
It will come as no surprise to a modern audience that the automaton did not actually digest the food, but French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson clearly went for the raw realism of nature with that one.
We shouldn’t laugh too hard: de Vaucanson was a pioneer in many fields (including inventing an automatic loom and building the first all-metal lathe) and he built what is considered to be the first biomechanical automaton, The Flute Player, which could play twelve different songs. He also built The Tambourine Player. Both of these automatons were inspired by anatomy lessons from a French surgeon.
This was also the time of famous watch and clockmakers Pierre Jaquet-Droz and Henri Maillardet, creators of some of the most impressive humanoid automata, which could draw pictures, sign names, and write simple messages.
The “official” golden age
The mid-nineteenth century (around 1860) through to about 1910 is considered the “golden age of automata” (there is even a book by that title) because the proliferation of companies producing automatons exploded thanks to the industrial revolution making standardized mechanical components much easier to manufacture. Thousands of automata and mechanical singing birds were exported around the world, remaining popular with collectors up until just before World War I.
Unsurprisingly, the worldwide economic distress and conservative attitudes brought about by the destructive tragedy of global war changed priorities across Europe (one of the centers for automaton production) and creation of automatons fell out of wider practice. While it never completely disappeared in Europe, Asia, or the United States of America, the mechanical inventiveness gave way to the artistic side of things since electricity and technological advances with manufacturing made automata relatively easy to produce.
For a while, companies either focused exclusively on creating high art with automata or cheap, toy-like contraptions. And now in the internet age we have seen a renaissance of these items as people are re-exposed to the impressive yet playful aspect of automatons – you can find many fun and inexpensive examples online.
While that might be a bit disheartening for those who enjoy automata for the artistic crafts and incredible engineering, affordability allows people an easy entry into the world of engineering principles via fun automata.
And that brings me to the details of how simple mechanical principles can combine to create some of the most spectacular inventions in history.
Building blocks: five categories of motion
It’s obvious to anyone paying attention to high-end automata today that extraordinary engineering can be combined with impressive artistic crafts to wonderful ends. But even in the highest quality examples, the principles of what drives automata are largely the same as they have been for centuries because most are based on very straightforward mechanical principles to create motion.
I’d say that 95 percent of all automata use five basic mechanical principles to create motion, and only in rare examples is something utilized that doesn’t fit these categories. The categories are as follows: wheels, pulleys, gears, cams, and linkages. If I were a stickler, I could combine wheels, pulleys, and gears into a larger group. But they all create motion somewhat differently and can be used for unique motions, so let’s stick with five general categories.
First up are wheels, which in many cases are simply driven on an axle to allow an object to spin or, depending on the automata, create linear motion for the entire machine, driving it like a coach or train, or with hidden wheels to create the illusion of locomotion for an animal.
Wheels can be internal drivers of other mechanisms or simply be final components in a mechanical chain. A great example of the end component being a wheel is cuckoo clocks that feature rings of characters parading out from inside the clock body, often attached to the side of a simple wheel.
Pulleys are an evolution of wheels as they can either be smooth or toothed and mesh with a chain or belt to transfer rotation to an object at a distance. Depending on the setup, pulleys can transfer rotational motion at angles with flexible belts (often found on a variety of older industrial machines) and can provide a bit of shock protection for a mechanism.
Variation in diameter between two pulleys can increase or decrease speed, but more importantly it can actually change the amount of force imparted. This solves problems with an input that is either too weak to directly move a large component or is too powerful and needs a reduction to protect the mechanism.
Evolving one step further, gears are basically toothed pulleys that are made so precisely that they can mesh directly with another toothed pulley.
The earliest gears were definitely imprecise affairs where one gear would feature two parallel wheels with evenly spaced rods connecting them, which meshed with a single wheel with evenly spaced rods extending out from its rim. These would have been found in the oldest automatons of ancient China or Greece and are staples of some of the most famous large clocks in the world.
But as technology advanced, and gear geometry became more understood, very precise gears that you would recognize today came into being that could transfer very large amounts of force very accurately and, like pulleys, could be used to change speed, force, or provide precise ratios for timed mechanisms (obviously). The invention of precise gearing allowed for very complex machinery that uses the basic lever to its fullest potential.
The cam is another of the oldest mechanisms since it is, in the simplest terms, a wheel with an off-center axle. This creates non-constant repeating motion that can be used to drive linear actions. The basic principle uses a specially shaped wheel, often a rounded lobe or a spiraling snail shape, with a cam follower (a simple finger or tooth that rides against the perimeter) that translates the motion to another wheel or linkage creating a back-and-forth motion. This can be an extremely basic or incredibly complex motion, but the principle is the same.
The final building block is the linkage, which includes things like cam followers, levers, and the basic pivoting arm. These structures are extremely simple but practically the main feature creating movement in an automaton. A linkage is constructed from a bar that is either pivoting around a single axis, linked on both ends with two axes, or linked with three or more axes to create complex motion paths.
A linkage can be tied to a wheel, pulley or gear; riding on a cam; or connected to other linkages like in a four-bar mechanism (used to create a specific rotation around an imaginary/floating axis).
When creating something as complex as a galloping horse or as simple as a figure waving an arm, a linkage can be tied to any of the components to translate a rotational motion (coming from the “clockworks” of the automata mechanism) into a directional motion.
Combining linkages together allows for fine tuning of the motion based on pivot locations, lengths of the sections, and number of constraining components.
Nearly all automata can be created with these five basic mechanisms. Even the famous Jaquet Droz automaton The Writer is based on a massive stack of cam wheels and a huge number of carefully constrained linkages that translates the simple rotation of a master driving wheel into subtle arm and hand movements that create delicate, handwritten script.
Case study: Jaquet Droz Whistling Machine
Historical automatons are hard to comprehend with their incredible complexity combined with an exterior package meant to hide the mechanism. I find it is much easier to focus on a more streamlined automaton, again by Jaquet Droz, one currently in the collection and a perfect showcase of a chirping bird automaton that might have been found in a birdcage automata nearly three centuries ago.
That automaton is the Jaquet Droz Whistling Machine, and with such a name I don’t think I need to say what the purpose of the device is (hint: it whistles).
It was released in 2018 as an homage to the first machines made by brand founder Pierre Jaquet-Droz in the mid-eighteenth century. But best of all, it was built to showcase the mechanism: it has no dial or time indications and no case hiding the mechanism. The architecture and mechanics of the Whistling Machine is on full view, topped by a small mechanical bird housed in a glass box.
It’s so straightforward in fact that there are basically two main plates that support nearly every component, and it’s easy to trace the flow of power through the mechanism and see how the wheels, cams, gears, and linkages combine to move the mechanical bird and create the chirping sound.
This begins on the front of the Whistling Machine, which I actually would argue is the back. The reason why is that even though there is no dial and nothing hiding any part of the movement, the only features on the “front” side are the winding key and the on-off linkage.
That’s it. The rest of the mechanism is more easily viewed from the sides and the rear, so in my mind that is the actual front.
The mechanism is fairly easy to understand. Winding the key winds the very large mainspring barrel sandwiched in the center of the two main plates of the mechanism. A ratchet wheel opposite the winding key keeps the mainspring from just unwinding and helps load the mechanism. The on-off linkage is then pulled, which releases a helical gear on the opposite side of the mechanism.
Meshed with the helical gear is a worm gear that shares an axis with a centrifugal governor made of three strips of spring steel with large weights mounted in their centers. As it rotates faster, the weights fly outward, limiting the overall speed of the automaton by slowing the helical gear’s rotation. The helical gear is connected to the mainspring barrel via a small gear train.
Along this gear train, one gear is connected to a wheel bearing a single extruding post. This arrangement acts like a cam, driving a piston linkage via a pill-shaped follower that slides back and forth on the post. The piston is an air pump inside a glass chamber that charges a second glass chamber on each in and out motion. This is thanks to two one-way valves on each end of the chamber and two tubes connecting to the storage chamber. The storage chamber has a plunger inside with springs behind it to keep the air under constant pressure to be released by a component found later in the mechanism.
Cams, linkages, and levers unite
Continuing, we come back to the mainspring barrel, which is the driver for the entire show and as such contains a variety of features activating different functions of the whistling mechanism and bird automaton. On the forward face of the barrel is a plate with an undulating surface upon which rides a bearing. That bearing is on the end of a linkage arm that pivots on its opposite end. The pivot is tied to a vertical shaft that translates the motion to another linkage arm above the barrel with a second linkage arm at its other end.
This arm extends forward with a toothed end that meshes with a pinion gear, just like a rack and pinion, which further translates the cam’s movement below into rotational motion. That pinion gear is the axis of rotation for the bird automaton. As the cam undulates the bearing below, the bird rotates back and forth like a real bird turning and hopping on a branch. But it doesn’t just rotate, it has flapping wings and a beak opening and closing! But this is driven by a different component.
On the rear rim of the mainspring barrel are two rows of teeth, each with a unique pattern of highs and lows around the circumference. These teeth are basically tiny cam lobes that interact with followers on two different linkages. The rear row of teeth has a small lever arm driving two functions: the bird whistle and the bird’s actions I previously described. That arm follows the peaks and valleys of the teeth and when it drops into a valley, the functions are released; when it rides over a peak, they are engaged.
When lifted, the end of the arm opposite the pivot lowers, which pulls a second linkage arm down. That arm rotates a horizontal shaft with a third linkage arm on its opposite end. This leads to the third arm raising its outward end, which pushes a vertical shaft up the center of the bird’s shell, flapping its wings and opening its beak.
Back at the beginning, the pivot arm has a third branch extending upward vertically from the center of the axis of rotation. This translates the rotation into a pushing action thanks to a rounded foot on the end.
This foot pushes on a C-shaped linkage that hits a thin shaft coming out of the upper air chamber. When depressed, it opens the whistle feature, letting air escape and creating the sound. Since this is tied to the same linkage as the flapping wings and beak, it appears to visually chirp at the same time it audibly chirps.
There is one more feature, the variable pitch of the whistle.
This is accomplished thanks to the second row of teeth interacting similarly to the first row, but this time with a long lever arm linkage that extends way up above mechanism. The end of the arm attaches to a very thin linkage with a small plunger on the end that runs down the center of a third glass chamber attached to the storage chamber.
As the linkage is moved in and out of the small chamber, the position changes the pitch of the whistle as it creates more or less volume respectively resulting in a lower or higher pitch. This plunger is designed to move just before the whistle is activated for a set pitch, or during for a raise or drop pitch like a slide whistle which sounds just like a real bird.
And with that, we have all of the seemingly complex functions described through the operation of five basic mechanical features.
At the core
You can apply all of the same basic principles and simply change the geometry, add more complex linkages, levers, cams, and gears and end up with something so mindbogglingly complicated it is hard to believe that a man created a humanoid automata that could draw complex pictures, write extended phrases (in cursive, mind you), or play an actual flute with only those basic features.
That is the genius and simplicity of automata, and once quality springs and precision engineering appeared, the ancient ways of hydraulics and pneumatics could be expanded upon and miniaturized into astonishing creations.
One could spend years dissecting the various automatons of history, yet it would nearly always boil down to the same ideas implemented in a million creative ways.
And that is what mechanical design really is. We use simple machines that were developed thousands of years ago to come up with incredibly unique ways of combination for novel purposes. Mechanical engineering takes those basic machines and finds the limits of their use, the ways they can be improved, and with precise manufacturing the most accurate form of implementation.
Automata have been there every step of the way as creative masters built machines to test ideas and inspire wonder. Many advances in machinery design were first tested in automata hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years ago, and as such automatons, along with clocks and watches, are part and parcel of technological innovation throughout history.
This lengthy overview is just the beginning of the study of automatons, and if you are fascinated and want to know more there are numerous pieces on Quill & Pad covering other automata.
I highly recommend watching videos of how the mechanisms work, like those in this post, to see if you can trace the path of power and understand how components relate to create motion. Once you grasp how straightforward much of it is, you will be awestruck by how the simple mechanisms create something so complex.
For more information, please visit www.jaquet-droz.com/en/watches/automata/whistling-machine.
Quick Facts Jaquet Droz Whistling Machine
Case: 250 x 130 x 266 mm, glass and black varnished wood
Movement: manual winding Jaquet Droz MASIF automaton movement with two-minute power reserve
Functions: chirping and flapping bird automaton, whistling function
Limitation: 8 pieces worldwide