7 Amazing Automatons You Can See in Action

Carl Court/Getty Images
Carl Court/Getty Images

Robots are increasingly becoming a part of modern life, but their roots go surprisingly far back. Most early automatons were created as entertainment for wealthy owners and their mechanisms frequently kept secret, lending them a touch of magic. Today, a number of early examples survive in museums around the world, continuing to delight and inspire us.

1. THE MECHANICAL MONK

This wooden mechanical monk is just 16 inches high. When wound with a key he trundles along in a square shape, mouthing prayers and occasionally bringing a cross to his lips and kissing it. It's believed the monk was built around 1560 by Spanish master watchmaker Juanelo Turriano for the Spanish King Philip II. Philip’s son had almost died after an accident, and the king prayed to God for his recovery, promising to give a miracle for a miracle. Legend tells us that the mechanical monk, who constantly prays in penance, was the miracle Philip had created to celebrate his son’s recovery. The Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology acquired the monk from Geneva in 1977, allowing researchers to investigate the secrets of the monk’s uncanny movements and preserve its magic for future generations. Today it is part of the collections of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where it's sadly not currently not on display—but you can check out its moves above.

2. THE SILVER SWAN

A beautiful musical automaton built in 1773, this life-size swan appears to swim, preen itself, and catch a fish. Its movements are controlled by three separate mechanisms designed by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor of his time. The swan was originally part of the repertoire of London showman James Cox, who showed it at his Mechanical Museum, where it was hugely popular with the crowds. The swan later moved to Paris, where it was part of the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. Mark Twain saw it there and was transfixed, writing in The Innocents Abroad: "I watched a 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 it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop."

Art collectors John and Joséphine Bowes also first saw the swan at the Paris exhibition and made up their minds to buy it, securing it in 1872 for £200 (roughly $23,000 today). The swan can still be seen at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, UK, where every day at 2 p.m. it performs for a beguiling 40 seconds.

3. THE DRAUGHTSMAN, WRITER, AND MUSICIAN

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was an 18th-century Swiss watchmaker whose clocks were popular with royalty, and this patronage allowed him to indulge his passion for automata. His most famous creations are the Writer, Draughtsman, and Musician, three humanoid automatons unveiled in 1774. The Writer dips its pen into an ink stand and can write any word of up to 40 characters. The Draughtsman inscribes one of four pre-programmed images, and The Musician is a girl who can play up to five different songs at an organ. These automatons toured Europe in the 1770s and 1780s, amusing the greatest minds of the day before eventually settling for good in the early 1900s at the Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where they are still on display.

4. TIPU’S TIGER

This fascinating, if gruesome, automaton depicts a tiger mauling a European soldier to death. It was made in the 1790s for Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in South India. During this period the British East India Company was fighting for control of the region against Tipu Sultan, who used a tiger motif as a symbol of his leadership and a representation of his hoped-for defeat of invading British forces. Unfortunately for Tipu, his optimistic automaton did not foretell victory, and he was killed in 1799 as the British took control of his capital, Seringapatam.

The spoils of war were divided up by the soldiers and the almost life-size wooden tiger was sent back to London as a curiosity. It was an immediate success with the public, the crowds amazed by the marvelous mechanism. When wound up, a pipe organ plays, the man’s arm moves plaintively, and he emits a dying groan. Today the tiger is one of the most popular items on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, although unfortunately it is so delicate it is rarely played.

5. THE DULCIMER PLAYER

La Joueuse de Tympanon, or The Dulcimer Player, was made by cabinetmaker David Roentgen and presented as a surprise to his patron Louis XVI for the queen, Marie-Antoinette, in 1784. This automaton is a small, carved wooden woman (rumored to have hair woven from Marie-Antoinette’s own hair and to wear a dress made from the fabric of one of the queen’s own dresses) who plays the dulcimer, a stringed instrument manipulated by striking the strings with a metal hammer. The mesmerizing little automaton can play eight different tunes and because of the way her head moves as she plays, she is unnervingly lifelike. Today she can be seen at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, though unfortunately she is rarely wound up and played.

6. KARAKURI TEA SERVING ROBOTS

Karakuri are traditional Japanese mechanized puppets, popular during the Edo period (1603–1868). The most famous are the zashiki karakuri, which are mechanized household servants inspired by European clockwork. Examples of tea-serving karakuri can be seen in the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo; when wound up, they move forward in a straight line, proffering a bowl of hot tea (supplied by a real-life servant), bowing their head once they stop.

7. ERIC, BRITAIN’S FIRST ROBOT

Eric was the first robot built in Britain. He was constructed in the late 1920s by journalist and entrepreneur William Richards and aircraft engineer Alan Reffell as a stand-in for the Duke of York when the latter was unable to open an exhibition of model engineering. Covered in aluminum and standing 6.5 feet tall, Eric could move his arms, bow, and shoot blue sparks from his mouth, which caused a sensation wherever he went. He was so successful that he went on tour to America, but despite initially gaining plenty of coverage in the press, his ultimate fate is unknown (although researchers think he was likely cannibalized for parts). In 2016, Ben Russell, curator at London's Science Museum, discovered Eric's story and became determined to recreate this iconic robot for the museum. Russell ran a Kickstarter to get funding and scoured the archives for images of the robot in action, finally spending five months building a replica of Eric. This replica is now on display in the museum for all to admire.

20 Things to Look for While Watching John Carpenter’s Halloween

Compass International Pictures
Compass International Pictures

Horror movies don’t come simpler or more effective than Halloween, director John Carpenter’s 1978 classic that helped revitalize the slasher genre and, of course, created one of the most popular costumes of all time. Halloween sends chills down your spine with nothing more than a few piano notes and long shots of the masked Michael Myers looming in the background, stalking his victims. (Today’s masters of horror could learn a thing or two from its less-is-more potency). To paraphrase Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis talking about Myers, this is a story about a man made up of pure evil.

After countless sequels and franchise reboots, including David Gordon Green's new Halloween sequel starring Jamie Lee Curtis (which, strangely enough, was co-written by comedian Danny McBride), it can sometimes feel like there’s no fresh ground in Myers. But it’s worth revisiting the movie that started it all to see how many deeper nuances were hiding just below the surface of Carpenter’s sublime terror. We rounded up the strange facts, goofs, and hints to catch next time Halloween inevitably pops up on a TV screen near you.

1. THE HALLOWEEN THEME SONG IS ITS OWN CHARACTER.


The opening credits set the mood with an image of a jack-o’-lantern and the movie’s theme song, which instantly communicate that Michael Myers is on his way and you should not underestimate him. The thing about that theme song: John Carpenter, who scored the movie himself as he did with many of his movies, clearly understood its power. It plays six different times throughout the film, along with variations on it (enough to make its own drinking game).

2. HALLOWEEN HAPPENED THANKS TO ONE RICH MAN IN THE CREDITS.


After seeing Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, Syrian American financier Moustapha Al Akkad put up the $300,000 budget for the director to make a movie about a psychopath who stalks babysitters. Today, the Akkad family is still involved with production of movies in the franchise.

3. JAMIE LEE CURTIS WAS A NOBODY WHEN HALLOWEEN CAME OUT.


It seems hard to fathom now, but Halloween was Jamie Lee Curtis’s feature film debut. Curtis, of course, is the daughter of Janet Leigh, who had one of the most memorable roles in a scary movie ever with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. If you look closely, Myers’s knife of choice even resembles the one from Psycho.

4. THE TOWNS IN HALLOWEEN DON’T EXIST, THOUGH THEY’RE (SORT OF) BASED ON REAL PLACES.


Halloween is mostly set in Haddonfield, Illinois, the sleepy Midwestern town where young Michael Myers begins his murderous mayhem. He later escapes from a hospital in Smith’s Grove, Illinois. Both places are fictional, but Smiths Grove, Kentucky, is close to where John Carpenter grew up in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Haddonfield is a reference to co-writer and producer Debra Hill’s hometown of Haddonfield, New Jersey. And the shooting location for the haunted Myers home was actually Pasadena, California.

5. MICHAEL MYERS HAD AN EARLY OBSESSION WITH MASKS.


We watch a six-year-old Myers put on a clown mask that’s been discarded on the floor in the earliest Halloween scene, before he tragically kills his own sister Judith. The masks help make Myers seem human-like, yet somehow beyond human thought and reason. “The idea was to make him almost humorless, faceless,” Hill said.

6. MYERS CLEARLY HAS A TORTURED RELATIONSHIP WITH SEX.


All of the murders we see happen in the original Halloween are tied to sexual activity: Myers stabs his sister to death after she’s been fooling around with a boy. Later Annie, Lynda, and Bob all suffer similar fates after they’ve disrobed or slept together.

7. LAURIE, HOWEVER, SEEMS DOWNRIGHT CONSERVATIVE FOR 1978.


According to common horror movie logic (which Halloween helped usher in), the more of a prude you are, the more likely you are to make it through the night. So it is here: Curtis’s Laurie, especially for her age in the late 1970s, stays covered up and doesn’t kiss a single person. She also expresses embarrassment when confronted about her feelings for a classmate.

8. DR. LOOMIS ISN’T VERY GOOD AT PARKING.


Loomis pursues Myers after the killer has escaped a hospital, using his deep knowledge of the patient to track him down. But Loomis does something un-doctorly in the process: He parks in a handicapped spot, despite not having any noticeable handicap.

9. LAURIE GETS A SCHOOLING IN FATE THAT’S AN IMPORTANT CLUE.


While she’s in a high school class and Myers is lurking outside, Laurie answers a teacher’s question about destiny. It might seem like filler dialogue, but it speaks to how Myers is constantly driven back—including in later movies—into the lives of the people in Haddonfield. She says, “Costaine wrote that fate was somehow related only to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element, like earth, air, fire, and water."

10. A MATCHBOOK HOLDS CLUES TO MYERS’S PAST (AND FUTURE).


You can see Loomis looking at a matchbook in a car with his colleague Marion Chambers early in the movie. It says: The Rabbit in Red Lounge. Loomis later finds the same matchbook after Myers steals the car, which helps lead him to the killer. The Rabbit in Red Lounge nightclub makes an appearance in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reboot of Halloween, as the place where Myers’s mother works as a dancer.

11. THERE ARE TWO BRIEF GLIMPSES OF MYERS UNDERNEATH THE MASK IN HALLOWEEN.


We barely see Myers in profile as he jumps on top of a car outside the hospital where he’s being held early in the movie, but you get a much better look at his face when Laurie pulls off his mask near the end. That is the face of actor Tony Moran, who didn’t go on to do any of the sequels, though he still became a cult icon. The masked Myers is played by Nick Castle, who’s credited simply as “The Shape."

12. LAURIE SINGS A REALLY CREEPY SONG THAT MIGHT BE ABOUT HER AND MYERS.


While Laurie walks around town and Myers pursues her, she sings a couple lyrics that sound sweet but are haunting in context: “Wish I had you all alone / Just the two of us.” Internet digging reveals that it’s not a pop song, but rather it could be a reference to her repressed romantic feelings, or a nod to what will become her ongoing connection to Myers.

13. THE KID LAURIE BABYSITS LOOKS WEIRDLY LIKE YOUNG MYERS.


Myers as a six-year-old is played by Will Sandin, with blond longer hair. The actor playing Tommy, the boy Laurie is babysitting, bears a striking resemblance to Sandin.


It could be a coincidence, but somehow we think not.

14. MYERS’S GHOULISH MASK IS ACTUALLY JUST WILLIAM SHATNER.


As Halloween didn’t have a lot of money to go around, its art director Tommy Lee Wallace bought a cheap mask at a costume store, which happened to be of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk from Star Trek. Apparently the mask didn’t look much like Shatner, anyway, which worked for the best: The filmmakers painted it and adjusted the eyeholes to provide the unsettling visage for their maniac.

15. THE MYERS HOME MAGICALLY TRANSFORMS OVER TIME.


In the opening sequence of Halloween, we see Myers walk through his family’s home on his way to killing his sister, and there’s floral wallpaper.


In a later shot, we see Loomis and Sheriff Brackett walk through the very same area of the house, and it has a different floral wallpaper. But Brackett says no one has lived in the house since the incident in 1963. So did Myers redecorate on his trip back into town?

16. JOHN CARPENTER PREVIEWED ONE OF HIS NEXT MOVIES IN HALLOWEEN.


Halloween has two movie-within-a-movie moments: The teens and the kids they’re babysitting are seen watching The Thing from Another World (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956), both of which undoubtedly influenced Carpenter. In fact, Carpenter went on to make The Thing (1982), an adaptation of Who Goes There, the same novella on which The Thing from Another World is based.

17. A NEIGHBOR DOESN’T HELP LAURIE WHEN SHE’S IN TROUBLE.


One of the more unnerving moments in Halloween is so brief that you could easily miss it: As Laurie is being chased by Myers later in the movie, she runs to a neighboring house and screams for help. You can see an outside light turn on and an arm of someone inside looking through a window. But the person quickly walks away, leaving Laurie in harm’s way.

18. MYERS IS HARD TO KILL—EVEN BY HORROR MOVIE STANDARDS.


It became a running joke in the Halloween franchise that Myers is impossible to kill. In fact, he seems to resurrect himself on the spot, a trope that was reused in many later slasher films. In the first movie, we watch Laurie stab him once, then again in a closet with his own knife. Then Loomis shoots him multiple times, leading him to fall off the second floor of a house. But when Loomis goes to check on the body, Myers is already gone. As little Tommy puts it best, “You can’t kill the bogeyman."

19. MYERS’S AGE DOESN’T QUITE ADD UP.


Myers is supposed to be age six when Halloween begins in 1963. In 1978, then, he should about 21 years old. Yet in the end credits, the older Myers is said to be 23, which is impossible. Except, of course, in a movie.

20. CARPENTER GAVE HIMSELF A CODE NAME.


In the end credits, the music is listed as being performed by The Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra. Well, there is no such orchestra. Carpenter is from Bowling Green, Kentucky, and decided to gussy up his music credit. (To be fair, he did get help on the songs from a few friends.)

All screenshots via Anchor Bay Entertainment.

12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi

Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 20, 1882—136 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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