Automatons Part 1 : Artificial Fun For All!

So, if none of you have noticed by now I hold a firm belief that people in the 19th century were not only fascinating but also morbid little creepers who loved their dissection lessons and oddity collections!  I mean, nothing thrilled them more than to sit around and talk to circus folk or observe a two headed still-born fetus floating about in formaldehyde.  So this article may not even be that morbid, odd, or creepy to you after reading about side show freak art at Ringling but if you really think about it…dolls of any sort have a creep factor to them that no teddy bear on earth can hold!

Automatons.  They came in many different forms ranging from heads, hands, and fully functional body parts. This was the name given to those little machines which many artists, scientists, and watch makers made to entertain the masses with their hands free ability to play music, draw, and (quite horrifyingly) speak.  That’s right!  Some of these things spoke!  It’s about as fun as Baby Laughs-A-Lot croaking like an old woman with emphysema!  But to Victorians and 19th Century Americans…this was spectacular!  And the more detail and realism that could be given the better!

So here is a short list of some popular and a few lesser known automata in history and what role they played in making little children cry and cringe at the thought of a winding clock key!

The “Draftsmen-Writer”

Jaquet-Droz_WriterCreated by Henri Maillardet.  Recently, I’m sure, some of you have seen the movie Hugo that contains an automaton that draws scenes of From the Earth to the Moon.  A similar, real automaton exists at the Franklin Institute that has the most comprehensive memory from the 1800’s at the time it was made.  It also arrived in thousands of pieces and had to painstakingly be put back together.  It can produce 7 complete sketches which includes three poems in two languages.  Now this may not seem like a lot, but one should never scoff at artistic talent coming from a pen run by a pile of gears.  This little guy was actually one of three and is also pictures further down the list!


Joseph Faber built a machine that could speak. A talking head that could pronounce almost every word appropriately.  Why?  This is so disturbing!  It’s a head!  That has a moving mouth!  It speaks!  What purpose did it have?!  And it took up the whole room!  Inconvenient and frightening!  Nothing says house party like a floating head connected to a few tubes and gears that repeats your words in a scary monotone voice!  I wonder if it ever malfunctioned at night when everyone is in bed and all anyone hears is “hello”.

Tipu’s Tiger

A very well known device with a rather dark undertone.  The image is of a tiger that represents Tipu Sultan and a flailing man accurately representing modern day Europe….I mean, 19th century Europe!  The man’s arms move and flail about and the tiger grunts as it ravages the man to death.  Seems about right!  And the device is deceiving!  It’s a very large machine!  But, on a lighter note, it is a music instrument.  So the Sultan could listen to beautiful music whilst watching a large tiger mutilate a helpless and frightened man…entertainment for hours!

The Walking Man

George Moore built a steam-powered walking man in 1893.  With the body of a boiler, it was designed to replace horses for pulling carts.  The man could walk at a pace of 9 miles per hour.  So it really would have replaced horses had you wanted to get to and from the grocery store in one day, or made a day trip out of traveling to school or picking up a newspaper at the news stand a few miles away!  Think of the safety features!  Your ride to the local doctor could have been made much more slow and excruciating as you scorched yourself with scolding hot water which could have been fixed had you not been traveling on a contraption that you most likely got the burn from!  Yay progress!

Pierre Jaquet-Doz 3 Automata

The musician is not recorded music in that the female organ player is really playing the piano while breathing, balancing herself and contemplating her profession just like a real pianist.  He also created a draftsman but this one can only draw 4 objects…one of them being King Louis XV and he will even periodically blow the pencil shaving away.  The last is the writer which can write any custom text 40 letters long.  He inks his quill and his head and eyes follow his hand as he writes.


She sews!  By hand!  Well, actually…I’m not too sure if she can really sew or not.  She is a late 19th century paper mache automaton but instead of a key or winding mechanism she is operated via a hand crank under her stage.  Still, she moves her head and eyes and will eventually cross and recross her legs.

The Duck

The Duck can eat…and defecate. Yay!  I always wanted a duck that could do that!  It could even splash about in the water!  The creators idea was to demonstrate that all animals are machines of the flesh….that like to defecate on the floor!

There has been much intrigue when talking about machines and automatons alike.  Could they be used to assassinate a dignitary or instigate wars?  It is not a unique idea and there were probably many attempts to assassinate monarchs or dignitaries with a twisted little doll.  Strangely the first thing that just popped into my mind was that scene in “Barbarella”…even dolls.  However, there have sadly been no records of anything that spectacular being done in Victorian times with a automaton but why would that deter anyone when there was so much fun to be had!