Monday, October 8, 2012

Automata Through the Centuries - Part I

From what I've seen, building beautiful and detailed machines that actually function (such as Datamancer's computer mods or Jake Von Slatt's imaginative machines) is somewhat of a holy grail in Steampunk culture (that is, as opposed to making things that are yes, beautiful, but mostly non-operational). But we Steampunks are not alone in our fascination with such things. For hundreds of years those who could afford to create them or, more commonly, have them commissioned, have left an amazing legacy of stunning art and machines.

One manifestation of such art and craft has been the building of “automatons” throughout the ages. I present for your pleasure a few outstanding examples!

The Antikythera Mechanism

Around 2,000 years ago Grecian engineers created amazingly complex machines, including automatons, which apparently were not uncommon in larger cities such as Alexandria, sometimes even run by steam! One famous construct from that time, the Antikythera Mechanism, has been replicated exactly from measurements and examination of the original. By mere observation one would never guess how many things it's doing as it turns: Tracking the both the Egyptian and Greek calendars, the movements of the sun, five planets and the moon, including its phases, plus the rising and setting of certain stars. Oh, and it compensated for Leap Years. And that's just on one side!

On the other side were dials to four track long-cycles of years (19, 54, 76 and 223), as well as eclipse cycles. And if that's not enough, it also showed the dates of the Grecian Olympics (every 4 years, like our own) and other Greek games! Here is a beautifully done 3D video of it working.

DaVinci's Car

About a thousand years later, Leonardo DaVinci, among hundreds of other inventions, created plans for what could be considered the first precursor to the automobile, run by large clock springs:

Monk Bot

Fast forward to the 16th century, where we find a wind-up Monk Bot, owned now by the Smithsonian. No audio on this one, but at about the 50-second mark it starts showing all the little mechanisms that make it work. Isn't it astounding that a machine made in 1560 is now here for us to see on YouTube?? :)

Singing Birds

One common early form of automata was a singing bird in a cage. Would not a few of these in your Conservatory give it a truly Victorian air?


Later makers of these marvelous machines made them even more complex. Here's an example of an automation made in 1895 by Henri Maillardet, which was the inspiration for the movie “Hugo.”

In Part II we will explore modern makers of automata!

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