The news was recently abuzz with an incredible story; Saudi Arabia made an android, or robot, a citizen. Ever since a 1797 brochure called Mr. Haddock’s Andorides was published about an exhibition of automatons, the fascination with this fusion of doll and machinery has never stopped. There are all kinds of horror films and novels about them, and dolls, for that matter. Automatons even have Facebook pages devoted to them. Wired magazine frequently writes about them, and artificial intelligence, in general, is a hot ticket today.
Museum of Automata, York
Yet, automatons’ history is even older than that. The earliest mention of them describes gigantic statues in Ancient Egypt that were hollow, with tubes inserted into them. When the wind blew through them, it sounded as if they statues were talking. The Dictionary of Antiquities discusses them and related mechanical figures, including string puppets animated by humans. Plato alludes to another distant relative, the shadow puppet in The Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave.” Charlemagne allegedly had a talking head, and a medieval statue of Venus inspired a movie starring Vann White in the 80s! Even Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have created them for the entertainment of the wealthy dukes who served as his patrons.
Mary Shelley saw an exhibit of them, and they influence her infamous novel, Frankenstein. P.T. Barnum got into the act, and Maezel, who gave us the metronome, also had a hand in creating mamma dolls.
Clockwork figures existed in Japan, though their mechanisms were made entirely of wood; these are called Karakuri and were meant to serve tea. Paper mechanical figures today are called that as well, and can be purchased as kits.
During the 18th and 19th century, Maillardet, Jacquet Droz, Lambert, and Roullet et Decamps among others created beautiful figures that breathed, danced, played instruments and imitated human behavior in general. See video to the right for a BBC special on one of three surviving automata from the 18th century built by Jaquet Droz.
Many had papier mache heads, and at least one that belonged to Marie Antoinette played the harpsichord. Vaucanson, a French clergyman, created an amazing duck that got him into trouble with The Holy Inquisition, and a chess player automaton turned out to be a farce; a small man actually played chess inside the large body. Kurt Vonnegut alludes to him in his own book Player Piano. 19th-century examples had bisque heads made by Jumeau, Huret, Simon & Halbig, and others. The film Hugo and the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret were based on Maillardet’s automaton, once pictured as a woman in one of Janet Pagter Johl’s books. Today, it “lives” in the Franklin Institute.
Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh had a collection of automatons, and a few lived in the collection of Sam Pryor, his best friend, world-class doll collector, and vice president of Pan Am. To see Pryor’s collection feature, check out the December 1959 edition of National Geographic.
Doll collectors today may find it hard to lay their hands on the antique automatons featured in the Princess Grace Doll Museum in Monaco, or in the old collections of Lindbergh and The Who’s Roger Daltrey. Yet, mechanical dolls and small examples are still out there. Some ride carousel’s, like the example, featured in 1972’s film Scrooge, starring Albert Finney. They also appear in The Woman in Black.
19th-century examples also knit, perform magic tricks, dance, and in the case of Edison’s phonograph doll, talk. The Webber Singing doll is another variation. There are countless other mamma dolls, walking dolls like Autoperipatetikos, monkeys that clap symbols, even 50s and 60s dolls that walk and dance, including Saucy Walker and Dancerina. The Chatty Cathy family of dolls and other pull string toys of the 60s talked up a storm, and even Barbie and G.I. Joe found their voices. Many vintage holiday figures also move, play music, and talk. Dolls that play music have been popular for some time; some of these from the fifties are plush and move their heads as the music plays.
Vintage automatons from the 50s were made by Silvestri and decorated Christmas window at Marshall Field’s and other stores. Other figures like these were used as display objects for jewelry stores and other businesses.
Musee de la Magie | Paris
Wind up toys and dolls, some key wound, are the ancestors of the fantastic antique figures. So are dolls that operated with the help of a computer chip; these included Julie and World of Wonder’s Teddy Ruxpin. Even Tickle Me Elmo fits this category, along with the infamous Snack Time Kids of the 90s. While we can’t all have Marie Antoinette’s musician in our collections, there are many other examples of mechanical and talking dolls that would make great representations of automatons.
No longer relegated to dusty attics or the Island of Misfit Toys, automatons and mechanical dolls have their own fans and will keep moving, no matter what.
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