8 Amazing Automatons & the Minds Behind Them

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Since the Greeks first told the myth of Pygmalion, who wished the statue he loved would come to life, it seems man has been trying to build a perfect replica of himself. Some would say we're getting closer to that possibility as computer technologies evolve and the first attempts at artificial intelligence are developed. However, the same thing was said centuries ago when clockmakers—using little more than gears, springs, cams, and levers—built complex machines, known as automatons, that could mimic the actions of humans to a startling degree. Here are just some of these early androids (and even one duck) that convinced much of the world that the robopocalypse was just around the corner.

The Three Automatons

Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and their business partner Jean-Frederic Leschot were Swiss watchmakers of exceptional talent who sold timepieces to some of the richest noblemen in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. But their reputation didn't always proceed them, so they created "The Three Automatons" between 1768 and 1774, and toured with them to entertain and impress prospective clients. After touring for a decade, the three automatons were eventually sold for 75'000 francs to the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where they are still displayed and operated to this day.

The first is The Draughtsman, a young boy made from about 2000 parts that is capable of drawing pictures with the graphite pencil in his hand. His drawings, including a dog, a dancing nobleman and woman, Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a portrait of King Louis XV, are directed by a series of cams—rotating metal disks that move levers at a predetermined time and direction. As if that wasn't impressive enough, his eyes follow his hand as it draws, he sometimes shifts in his chair, and he even occasionally picks up the pencil to blow graphite dust from the page.

The Musician is a female automaton, made using approximately 2500 parts, that can play five different songs on her custom-made organ. Although it would be easy to fake this effect by having a music box play under her while her hands simply hovered over the keys, the watchmakers have her actually play the piano, striking the keys with her independently moving fingers to produce the correct notes. While she plays, her head and eyes move to follow her hands, her chest expands as she "breathes," and she even gives a polite bow between each song.

With around 6000 parts, the Writer is not only the most complex of the trio, but it also perhaps the most astonishing in that he can be "programmed" to write a custom phrase up to 40 characters long, including appropriate spaces between words. However, the phrase he is currently set to write—"Les automates / Jaquet Droz / a neuchatel"—has not been altered in quite some time since it takes about eight hours to change. Like the Draughtsman, the Writer's eyes also follow along as he writes, and he even dips his quill into a nearby inkwell, shaking it off just before writing so as not to drip on the page.

Japan's Gadget Wizard

The Japanese fascination with robots goes back to the late 15th century when religious stage productions featuring small, clockwork actors entertained followers in elaborate outdoors festivals. Eventually, these karakuri (Japanese for "gadget") made their way into the home and became novelties, similar to our mechanical banks here in the West, only much more sophisticated.

Perhaps the most celebrated designer of these domestic karakuri was Hisashige Tanaka, also known as Karakuri Giemon ("The Gadget Wizard"). At the age of 20 in 1819, Tanaka was already designing and building karakuri like Mojikaki ningyo (The Calligraphy Doll), a young man that could write four Chinese characters with brush and ink. While there were other writing karakuri at the time, Tanaka's was the only one that moved with such fluid, life-like movements. Tanaka's best-known automaton, though, was Yumihiki-doji (The Archer Doll). This automaton was a young boy, dressed in an exquisite kimono, sitting on a platform with a bow in his hand, next to a quiver of arrows. Upon activation, he would calmly reach over and take the first arrow, nock it to the bowstring, pull back his bow, and fire, hitting a separate target some distance away. (Below, The Calligraphy Doll is shown on the left; the Archer Doll is on the right.)

While these gadgets were incredible, Tanaka earned his other nickname, The Thomas Edison of Japan, by introducing many new technologies to his countrymen. Among his most famous inventions is the first Japanese steam engine, built mainly using a Dutch reference manual, followed shortly by the first steam-powered warship. He also went on to found the first telegraph equipment company in Japan, which would later become the global corporation known as Toshiba.

The Digesting Duck

Plagued with digestive problems for much of his life, Jacques de Vaucanson used automatons to not only entertain, but also to help further the understanding of bodily functions. His fascination with mechanical men started at a young age when he built a group of androids that were able to serve dinner and clear the table as a special treat for a church dignitary visiting the monastery Vaucanson attended for school. While the dignitary was first impressed by the machines, he later called them profane and ordered Vaucanson's workshop be destroyed. Not surprisingly, Vaucanson soon left the order and struck out on his own to continue his research into the combination of man and machine.

The first automaton that really put him on the map was The Flute Player, built in 1738. Not only was the figure unusually tall—life-sized at 5'6"—but it could actually play its instrument. Nine bellows hooked to three separate pipes leading up into the chest, all joined together to make a central pipe that was connected at the mouth, actually "breathed" into the flute. The three sets of bellows even had specially calibrated weights attached to help produce the correct amount of air needed to create dramatic changes in volume. Furthermore, the lips could open and close, and move backwards and forwards, to apply different positions to the flute to provide even more personality to the tune. Finally, thin leather encased seven independently moving fingers that covered the correct holes to play the 12 songs it knew.

But Vaucanson's masterpiece, the perfect combination of his fascination with bodily functions and mechanical life, was The Digesting Duck. Built in 1739, the duck was an automaton perched atop a tall pedestal; it could splash in water, quack, open and close its wings, and, when a grain of barley was offered by a human hand, could stretch out its neck and take the seed. It would then swallow the barley and, a few moments later, expel what appeared to be the digested seed out its backside. While there are some who believe this was a trick—there was a second chamber in the duck's bowels that was filled with compressed grass clippings—others believed the duck truly did digest its meals.

Only a few years later, Vaucanson sold off his automatons to focus on his new career as the head of silk production for King Louis XV, a production he revolutionized thanks to his design for a mechanical loom. Sadly, this career change means the fate of his automatons have been lost to history. There are occasionally some Digesting Ducks that crop up with owners claiming them to be the genuine item, but upon examination they are found to be clever copies by contemporaries of Vaucanson. The original Duck is probably gone forever.

Here's a video of a copy of the Digesting Duck to give you some idea of how it might have worked:

"Monkbot"

In 1562, 17-year-old Don Carlos, the heir apparent to King Philip II's throne, fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a severe head injury. Bed-ridden for months, the young man suffered seizures and brain swelling and was even struck blind before finally falling into a coma. Philip II called in the best doctors from across the country, who offered up the best-known remedies of the day. Nothing worked, and it appeared the young prince would die.

Desperate, Philip called for a monk named Diego de Alcala (who would later be the namesake of San Diego, California). This was an unusual request, since Diego had been dead for about 100 years. However, it was believed that this holy man's corpse could perform healing miracles, so Philip decided it was worth a try. When they laid the monk's body in the bed next to Don Carlos, Philip asked God for a miracle and, in exchange, promised to perform a miracle of his own in God's honor. The next morning, Don Carlos woke up, reporting that a monk had come into the room and spoken to him in the night, assuring him that he would recover.

To honor his agreement with God, Philip commissioned a renowned clockmaker, Juanelo Turriano, to create a wind-up automaton in the form of Saint Diego. The 15-inches-tall wood and iron android in a cloth robe could walk, turn and bow its head, raise a cross in one hand, beat its chest with the other, while the mouth opened and closed as though saying "mea culpa."

It's arguable if this was, in fact, a miracle, rather than just good old human ingenuity. But what is a miracle is that the Monkbot has survived. It has been stored at the Smithsonian Institute since 1977, though it rarely makes public appearances anymore. Unfortunately, Don Carlos' fate was not as cheery. Despite waking up and seeming to make a full recovery, the head injury changed the already ill-tempered prince for the worst. Carlos became completely mentally unstable, to the point where his own father locked him away six years later; he died in solitary confinement.

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September 19, 2011 - 6:36am
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