I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Automaton Phenomenon


by Kristen Bialik
Dec. 6, 2012

Call it a god complex, womb envy, or sheer fascination at that glorious and mystifying cross-section between life-like and alive, robots will always hold a special, albeit anxious, place in the human heart. Today, scientists and researchers are working on creating empathetic robots that can “perceive” and “show” emotion. As incredible or unnerving as that may sound, the pursuit of a man-made intelligent friend has been centuries in the making. These artificial forms of would-be life started out like any other - with movement, self-controlled movement. Before emotion, creativity, or brains, people looked to motion as the convincing spark of life, and they found it in automatons.

Automatons go back as far as ancient Greece, when Hero of Alexandria created and documented his programmable devices by 70 AD, and ancient Chinese texts describe encounters with automata dating at the 3rd century BC. Once the 14th century arrived, the previously slow and sparse automaton production made way for a burst in remarkable automated creativity. Leonardo da Vinci made an automaton in honor of Louis XII that advanced toward him, stopped, and then opened its chest to point to the fleur-de-lis coat of arms of France. This was the trend for the next several hundred years: engineers making really fancy toys for royals [1].

But by the time the 18th century rolled around, automatons were being used less as thrills for bored monarchs and instead, due to much greater interest in biomechanics, metaphysics, and philosophy, as a means for real scientific progress.

Watchmakers collaborated with doctors and surgeons to create artificial organs of greater complexity, and by 1739 Jacques de Vaucanson had created his “Digesting Duck,” an artificial duck capable of quacking, splashing, eating, drinking, and even digesting and discarding food [2]. By the end of the century, Henri Maillardet, a Swiss mechanician had built his "Draughtsman-Writer," an automaton with a memory so extensive it could write three poems (one in English and two in French) and create four different drawings [3]. At the end of the automaton’s final poem, it clearly signed "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet,” or "Written by the Automaton of Maillardet." What’s incredible about this one line is that the first clue to the true origin and history of the machine came from the mechanical memory of the machine itself! Creations such as this ushered in the period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s known as “The Golden Age of Automata.” At this time thousands of “princely toys” were being exported out of small, family workshops in Paris to places around the world, to magicians, collectors, and even filmmaker (and former/forever magician) Georges Méliès.

The visual magic and arresting realism of the automaton had entranced clockmakers, magicians, filmmakers, scientists, and philosophers. Because automatons did more than simply entertain, they raised questions that mapped squarely onto emerging debates on the nature of humanity and the mechanized nature of life. Building momentum in the 17th century, mechanism as a broad philosophy held that the universe is nothing more than a mechanized system, and that all phenomena, animal behavior, and even human life can be explained under laws of nature governing mass and motion. René Descartes contributed a great deal to the mechanistic understanding of nature and the belief that the bodies of animals are simply complex machines. A proponent of dualism, Descartes believed that the muscles, organs, and bones might as well be cogs, pistons, and levers, but that human beings, and only human beings, have minds – a material that exists outside the laws of nature. In Treatise on Man, Descartes wrote:

"I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels."

It’s no coincidence that Descartes had experimented with building automata and had plans before his death for “a dancing man, a flying pigeon, and a spaniel that chased a pheasant.” According to one story, sailors en route to Sweden with Descartes had searched the cabin one night for the philosopher and the daughter he’d claimed would be traveling with him. What they discovered instead was a living doll Descartes had created, which could move just like a human being. The doll was named Francine, the same name as Descartes’ human progeny, a daughter named Francine who had died nine years prior [4].

And so the philosopher who believed man is a machine had breathed life into loss and created mechanical progeny, which can only prompt the question, if man is machine, could the converse be true? Could machine ever be man?

In Edison’s Eve, author Gaby Wood tells the story of the Doll Family, a group of four dwarf siblings who performed in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and eventually in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and as munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (think Lollipop Guild). The Doll Family’s careers began near the end of “The Golden Age of Automata,” and as Wood points out, the cultural sensation of mechanical life allowed the family to baffle their audiences as to what they even were. In masquerading as delinquent babies and performing, under the pseudonym Doll Family, in venues similar to the magic shows that helped popularize automata, the actors created yet another illusion for the enraptured spectators. The audience wondered, and often preferred to believe, that the Doll Family were objects brought to life, boisterous mechanical beings brimming with talent and personality. Their performance was more than a song and dance program, as Wood puts it, “it was a balancing act, treading the fine line along each of these borders of perception.''

The act is really no different from The Turk, Wolfgang von Kempelen’s famous Automaton Chess Player. The machine was an illusion, constructed in the late 18th century, that played chess against a human component, touring Europe and the Americas for 84 years and beating the majority of it’s opponents, including challengers Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The Turk’s secret, kept for the better part of a century, was simply that a human chess master hid inside the base of the machine. The magic, though no one knew it, was the human mind all along.

Of course today there are automated game players that will take on any Chess opponent, hidden inside the base of a computer. After 21 centuries, building an artificial game player seems less incredible than the willingness of a family to straddle the line between human and inhuman for a brief comedy career, or even the willingness of a man crouched in a wooden box night after night, playing glory-less games against world leaders year after year, all to preserve the illusion of a toy that could think. So while scientists today are busy finding ways to grant machines the feelings of emotion and empathy, for the time being it seems man’s got both roles covered. We’ll keep building and building, whether it be for toys or the clockwork governing our minds and hearts.



[1] “History of Automata” by Gearworx

[2] A brief automata history at Mechanical-toys.com

[3] “Maillardet’s Automaton” from the Franklin Institute

[4] Edison’s Eve by Gaby Wood (2003)

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.