3 August, 2018   By: Cristy Burne

Automation is very much the talk of the future, but it's not new. Back in the 18th century, beautiful moving objects were the height of fashion and scientific progress. Here are five mechanised marvels that predate modern robotics by hundreds of years.

Although computers and industrial robots that can pick, pack and assemble goods are commonplace these days, automated machines have been around since the invention of clockwork, where cogs and wheels could move pieces around, creating the basis of automation.

By the 18th century, clockwork could be spring-driven and pinned cylinders were being used to make music.

Aristocratic audiences were keen for entertainment, and inventors wanted a way to showcase their skill. The time was ripe for the Golden Age of Automata. 

A vintage cuckoo clock in a German shop
Cuckoo clocks are a simple example of automata, which use weights, gears and a pendulum

Animated, automated and all the rage

Automata is another name for automated machines and in the 18th century ingenious inventors - who had a strong understanding of clockwork - created mostly mechanised dolls for the purpose of entertaining. 

Like today’s robots, the 18th century automata were painstakingly developed, piece by piece, until they appeared to behave of their own accord. They were seen as status symbols, representative of humankind’s capacity for technical brilliance in an era that adored innovation.

The public flocked to see them and, although they are now a couple of hundred years old, the automata are so clever and beautiful, they are still hugely popular and admired. Here are just a few of the automated marvels.

The Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson

In 1735 Jacques de Vaucanson found himself down and out in Paris. The young Frenchman had a fascination for mechanical science and needed a way to put food on his plate.

His solution? Build a few automata. 

Vaucanson set out to create mechanical devices so marvellous they would earn him fame and fortune. The plan worked.

His most popular creation was The Duck, a copper bird with 400+ moving parts in each flapping wing. The Duck’s crowning glory was its digestion: it could swallow grain, move it through a visible gut, then poop it out the other end. 

The Duck snagged Vaucanson a spot in the silk industry, where he pioneered the use of punch cards in automatic looms, a technique eventually used to program 20th century computers.

After extensive tours of Europe, the Duck disappeared sometime after 1863. 

The Writer, by Pierre Jaquet-Droz 

Swiss watchmaker Jaquet-Droz created three of the world’s most famous automata with the help of his son Henri-Louis and adopted son Jean-Frédéric Leschot. 

The most famous of these is The Writer, a clockwork child comprising around 6000 parts. Once wound, the child uses ink and a feather quill to write out a customisable message up to 40 letters long. 

In 1774, Jaquet-Droz exhibited The Writer along with The Draughtsman, a picture-sketching boy, and The Musician, an organ-playing girl. He took Europe by storm.

Riding on the velvet coat-tails of this success, Jacquet-Droz’s clockmaking business expanded into exporting watches and automata. Today the Jacquet-Droz company still produce watches that feature automata

The original Jaquet-Droz automata are exhibited at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Switzerland — and they still work.

The Silver Swan, by John Joseph Merlin

Meanwhile in London, prolific Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin (perhaps best-known today as the inventor of roller skates) turned his hand to clockwork. The result is the graceful Silver Swan, a musical automaton with over 2000 moving parts. 

Merlin created the Swan as a drawcard for showman James Cox’s Mechanical Museum, in London, where wealthy punters forked out to witness cutting edge wonders in action. 

Now housed in the UK’s Bowes Museum, the life-size swan wows even modern crowds. The bird’s body is made of silver and sits on a ‘stream’ of glass rods. The swan contains three internal clockwork mechanisms that allow the automaton to preen its feathers, search for fish, then catch and swallow its meal. 

The novelist Mark Twain once described the swan’s eyes as having “a living intelligence”, but there’s one sure way of knowing the bird is a fake: real swans don’t eat fish.

Karakuri dolls, by Tanaka Hisashige

You may not have heard of Tanaka Hisashige, but you probably know the company he started: Toshiba Corporation. 

Right from the time he was a child, Hisashige was a keen inventor. He studied automata—known as karakuri in Japan—using books, then invented his own movement mechanisms, powered by gravity, hydraulics and air pumps. 

By the age of 21 Hisashige was touring Japan with his mechanical marvels, including the arrow-shooting boy and letter-writing doll. He even gave up his claim to the family’s tortoiseshell-crafting business to pursue karakuri. 

When his fascination with karakuri passed, Hisashige continued to invent, making huge contributions in the design and construction of steam engines, cannons and clocks. It’s thought his six-faced clock, Man-nen Jimeisho, could run for a year after being wound just once.

Tipu’s Tiger, from India 

There’s nothing like a good tiger mauling to showcase your clockwork skills. But Tipu’s Tiger was made for glory, not science, by order of Tipu Sultan, an Indian ruler in the late 1700s known as the Tiger of Mysore. 

Tipu’s Tiger is wooden and almost life-sized as is the man that the tiger has pinned to the floor. If you turn a hidden handle, the tiger grunts and the man can raise his arm while wailing. For the more musically inclined, the tiger opens to reveal an 18-note pipe organ.

Tipu’s Tiger is said to represent his relationship with the invading British. Tipu’s army resisted the British army on three occasions, but in 1799 his kingdom fell and the tiger was shipped off to London. 

Tipu’s Tiger is now on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Automata vs robot - What's the difference?

They look like people, they act like people, so what’s the difference between an automaton and a robot? There’s no hard and fast rule, says researcher Dr Elizabeth Stephens of Southern Cross University.

"Robots began as a cultural concept, not a technical innovation," she says. “The word robot was first used in a play from the 1920s,” says Stephens. "But robots are simply mechanical figures, so there’s no categorical difference between 18th century automata and the 20th century concept of a robot.

“However, new robots are very sophisticated. So today if you’re still using mechanical technology, like cogs, then some people will say that’s an automaton.”

Stephens prefers to differentiate on the basis of function. While robots were invented to help humans, she says, automata were created to make us feel wonder.

“The idea of a robot was as an industrial slave. But automata were exhibited almost as artificial humans,” Stephens says. “People were just astounded by them.

“Automata entered the public sphere as one-off marvels, but that same technology was applied in the industrial technologies that started the industrial revolution of the 19th century."

And now, the next big era of advances in autonomous technology is here. Many of us use automated features every day in our vehicles, from cruise control to lane departure warning systems.

In South Perth, passengers have been able to take a fully driverless ride on the RAC Intellibus® since 2016. In addition to this, RAC will be testing several driverless passenger vehicles which have been designed as an on-demand ride sharing service.

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