Sunday, March 2, 2008


Automata are most familiar as the cuckoo in the clock, but through history have ranged from drinking bears to a chess playing Turk. The most elaborate were exhibited in the collectors' cabinets of kings.

I am not a fan of wood automata. Too many of these are palm-size toys that simply involve releasing tension on a stretchy string to make a small figure bow, dance or collapse. They frequently have scale problems with the wood grain that throws the proportion off. They're too cute.

I prefer metal table top or life size assemblies that are wound, then perform as hidden gears turn and springs release. Automata are supposed to be machines, not puppets.

Proper, old-fashioned automata are being nudged down the search results list by cellular automata, an invention of the mathematician Alan Turing which uses patterns as an early form of computer. Kugelbahn offers many links, as does the Wikipedia article. Automania has a nice slide show.

Robots are often classified as automata, but I see them as versions of mechanical life rather than imitations of it.

As for the Turk, he checkmated Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. It was not until 1947 that his secret was revealed, nearly 100 years after his demise in a fire. A reproduction named Ajeeb disappeared during World War II. A new Turk has been constructed by the Hans Nixdorf Museum, but unlike his predecessors, he doesn't keep his secret.

Top: The chess playing "Turk," He played with the cabinet doors closed. Bottom: This 400-year-old biting and screaming skull clock has animated snakes for eyeballs. The clock face is under the hinged skull cap.  Skull clock photos copyright Watchismo.