As we pave our way through the technologically advanced era, it is likely and perhaps easier for us to forget the roots from which the tech-sophisticated world commenced. From loudspeakers to stereo systems, from filament light bulbs to energy savers, we have only witnessed humanity progressing technologically and never looking back. The medieval age was taken by storm in the 18th century by one such invention when the fantastical thought of simulating the human actions culminated in a perfect amalgam of fine artistry, ingenious engineering, and anatomy and led to the creation of automata.
Automata are machines that function without external forces. They are designed so that they perform a predetermined task without any human intervention. The principle of an event repeating itself at a regular interval, also known as ‘mechanical clockwork’, was the basis behind the earliest automata.
In the heart of Germany, colossal clocks were an unruly display of power and authority, resonating in the country for centuries. But what is the mechanism behind a 500-year old automaton? It is the complex gears which are coiled with innumerable ropes and moving gears, designed by the minds of prudent artisans. This has allowed the movement of the centrally placed bob.
A distinctive invention in the history of automata was, perhaps, the automation of a working city in the Hellbrunn Palace in Salzburg, Austria, that was commissioned by Archbishop Jakob Graf von Dietrichstein, which turned out to be a truly extravagant display of technical sophistication, cultural values, and an indigenous Utopian society. The mechanism behind the Trick Foundation at Hellbrunn Palace was the water pressure that caused a wheel to rotate which, in turn, caused a series of gears to operate the entire machine. The metalwork inside the machine acted like an instructor causing these marvels to move at constant intervals.
This display of exquisite art stills stands perfectly as it did more than 300 years ago. As we progress in the tech world, we see everything being reduced in size to make it more portable. The artisans of the 18th century found it extremely challenging to miniaturize the components in automata which were the size of a pinhead. These components were later modified to become the wristwatches we wear. However, the challenge of reduction in size was very arduous for the artisans in a non-facilitated environment unlike ours. They still went on to make minute screws by forcing a plain steel rod into a screw plate along with a screw thread. Thus, intricate objects like spring drives, gears, etc. began to emerge as these artisans put their minds together to produce only the best.
Jacques De Vaucanson, a French engineer and inventor, worked at a time when an automaton was believed to be a far-fetched dream. Despite opposition to his idea of replicating human anatomical forms and movement, Vaucanson worked to better understand human anatomy and replicate it. His efforts led to a breakthrough in the history of automata which not only produced naturalistic sounds but moved about as well.
He went on to make The Flute Player in 1737 which vanished in thin air by the 19th century in Europe. Jacques’s flute player functioned on the principle of a new invention called ‘cams’. These cams were circular undulating steel surfaces that were designed and modified to produce a specific movement. From the swaying of a wing to the movement of an arm, the automata mimicked the human gestures. The mechanical memory storage of this cam determined the information which could be processed inside it to produce the target movement.
Another notable name in the history of automata was John Joseph Merlin (a clockmaker, musical instrument maker, inventor and showman in the 16th century) who, along with James Cox created a stunning masterpiece of art, an elegant swan that wonderfully simulated the movement of a real swan which left the European audience awestruck.
In the 1770s, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor, debuted his creation in Vienna; a chess-playing automaton in the presence of Maria Theresa. The so-called ‘Turk’ responded brilliantly to moves from his opponent, sensed cheating, and reacted accordingly. The Turk gained much fame across the globe. A machine guided by its own sense was quick to catch the interest of many; the critics, however, claimed that Kempelen had a child hiding in the machine somewhere. The infamous Turk left many flabbergasted wherever it went but was discovered to be a hoax by the end of the 18th century.
Despite the hoax, automata lead the technological commencement in England during the period of the