Automata: Forgotten Marvels of an Extraordinary Age

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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.

The marvels of Hellbrunn Palace

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 wrist watches 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 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.

The infamous “Turk” which brought the expert chess players of the 18th century to their feet. It was later disclosed as an experiment of confidence rather than that of technology.

Despite the hoax, automata lead the technological commencement in England during the period of Industrial Revolution.  


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Irta is a 17 year old A’level student at LGS 55 main. She is really passionate and inquisitive about writing and science in general. Astronomy and bio-chemistry are her areas of interest and she wishes to pursue a career in them. Other than that, she hopes to amalgamate my fields of interest to find cures for diseases like cancer and HIV and uplift the lower segments around her to leave behind a better world.
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1 COMMENT

  1. A truly marvellous literary piece diving into the depths of early day computation.

    The article provides an intriguing insight into the historical foundations of groundbreaking technological enhancements in the 19th, 20th and current century through the automata theory.

    I personally find this topic interesting due to its strong correlation and significance in modern day artificial intelligence and computing, and this source helps me deeply understand the significant origin of such discoveries through this theory.

    Your use of an academic and informative tone coupled with a special selection of historical evidence to back up your claims helps us readers deeply explore the automata theory and understand the implications of such a concept during the modern age. Keep up the great work!

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