Clockwork Men

Of the timeless fascination regarding automotons

Long before robots were conceived of by science fiction writers of the golden age, long before electricity was developed or flying ships were dreamed of, the human race has been fascinated by the concept of automotons.

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An automoton is not the same thing as a robot. Robots are mechanical men, but they are powered by modern engines and hydraulics. Automotons are specifically clockwork men—humanoid figures that move by magic or by gears, rather than by the more understandable engineering of today’s robots and automated processes. Robotics are the domain of science, and modern technology—automotons date from the ancient myths of the past.

The-Writer-automatonThere was a kind of magic and mythology surrounding clockworkers in the past, and the toys they made in their spare time, but the fascination with automatons predates even that. Wind-up toys and magical clock figurines are intricate but understandable in terms of 19th century and later technology. But what to make of the legends and evidence of automated machines dating back to the medieval ages or even earlier?

The word itself is Greek, and Greek poetry speaks of automotons standing on every street corner in Rhodes to amuse and amaze citizens and visitors. While fleeing from Crete after his defeat of the minotaur, Theseus must defeat a mechanical giant who walks around the city with a club to destroy any passing ships who do not know the correct password. Jewish legend speaks of the mechanical toys adoring Solomon’s throne, not to mention their tradition of the golem—clay armies who would come to their defense in a time of need.

Medieval automotons are not the stuff of myth and legend at all, but live on in museums and texts of the renassaince. Leonardo De Vinci himself designed an automoton in a suit of metal armor. A replica of his sketches can sit, nod its head, and move its arms.

HUGOMost well-known, perhaps, is the sort of automoton made popular by the book and movie Hugo—the sort of figurine that, when wound up, would sketch or write until their message or drawing was completed. Rather than being fiction, such a creation can be found today in a Swiss Museum. Other automotons written about as early as the 9th century include mechanical servants and musicians. Sorry, Toyota, but the first flute-playing machine was actually invented in 1737.

Automotons continue to capture the imagination of people today, but unfortunately most examples tend to take a fictional form—whether it be the mechanical bird in The Nightingale, or clock-faced robots from the Doctor Who episode “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The most modern clockworkers to create mechanical devices lived in Paris in the late 19th to early 20th century, also known as the golden age of automata.


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