Sunday, March 19, 2006


The machines depicted by Besson and Ramelli weren't the only machines of their day. They competed with others that caught the attention of both nobility and commoner. The automatons depicted by the authors of antiquity promised to entertain and improve the lives of man.

In 1618 Frobenius published a work entitled "Epistolae Fratris Rogerii Baconic, De secretis operibus artis et naturae, et de nullitate magiae." It was edited by John Dee and contains a list of marvelous classical machines, all of which operate without the benefit of magic. Many claimed that the ancients had tremendous skills with machines, which Renaissance men had yet to surpass. Agrippa's "De Occulta Philosophica Libri Tres" (1531-1533), for example, praises mathematics and mentions a wide variety of different ancient machines:

"The waling and speaking images made by Daedalus are one example. Others are the automata mentioned by Aristotle: self-moving tripods and serving maids constructed of gold which waited upon guests at banquets. Of a similar kind are speaking statues of Mercury, the wooden dove of Archytas, the marvels of Boethius reported by Cassiodorus, an image of Diomedes which blew a trumpet, a hissing bronze snake, and artificial birds which sang." (Schumaker, p. 257)

The wooden dove was particularly fascinating. Jerome Cardan discusses the dove in "De Rerum Varietate" (1557). Animated copies of singing birds also appear in the works of Ramelli and Salomon de Caus. Earlier examples include hydraulically driven Islamic models and the mechanical models illustrated by Villard de Honnecourt. Works describing these machines became increasingly popular as the Renaissance progressed.

Schumaker notes that Ramelli's work is of a different kind than the lists of inventions and "magico-mechanical marvels" that appear in Fludd's "Tractatus Apologeticus." Wilkin's "Mathematical Magick" is also a departure. Whereas Dee claimed that the ancients had utilized lost knowledge to construct their magnificent edifices, Wilkins cited reasons related to the economics of labour, religion, and ambition. Wilkins also attempted to provide some explanation of automata (although he does not mention Hero's "Pneumatica"). Indeed, Wilkins's work is considerably more palettable to modern readers than some of the earlier works:

"Nevertheless the modern reader finds himself, throughout his reading of Wilkins, on fairly comfortable ground. The awe apparent in earlier discussions is gone. Modern wisdom is fully equal to ancient, and the respect paid to Pythagorean 'proportions' and 'harmonies' has disappeared." (Schumaker, p. 268)

Automatons have an important role in the history of technology. Price explains that man's need and desire to create automatons as way of understanding the world is deep seated. Examples include Egyptian statues with speaking tubes, Mark Anthony's depiction of Caesar rising from the bier, the devices of Vulcan, the Jewish Golem, and the alchemical homunculus of Parecelsus. These biological automata were related to clockwork and the notion of feedback and control. Later inventions by the likes of Vaucanson have recieved considerable attention yet these earlier works remain under-studied:

"Amongst historians of technology there seems always to have been private, somewhat peevish discontent because the most ingenious mechanial devices of antiquity were not useful machines but trivial toys. Only slowly do the machines of everyday life take up the scientific advances and basic principles used long before in the the despicable playthings and overly-ingenious, impractical sceintific models and instruments." (Price, p.15)

Biological automata gradually became more popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Price notes that many of these devices depicted apes, literally beast-men capable of human activity but devoid of rationality. This motif was probably borrowed from Islamic precursors and anticipated Cartesian principles of dualism. Interestingly, these ape-automata may have been the source of inspiration for Swift's Yahoos: a tribe of senseless ape-men that confronted the indefatigable Gulliver. Of course, Yahoos are now just users of a particular Internet search engine. This unintentional etymological connection between medieval ape-men and cyber-surfing info-drones is certainly intriguing and deserves additional consideration.

The gearing and increased sophistication of clock-driven automata emerged in conjunction with larger hydraulic projects such as the draining of the English Fens or the Flemish low-lands. Additional influences appeared in the form of the printed work. While the simple waterclocks and sundials of Vitruvius's "De Architectura" were available from 1486, Hero's devices only appeared with the first publication of his work in Latin (1573) and Italian (1589).

The three automata of Vaucanson provides an interesting example of the increasing interest in automata. In 1738, he put three different automata on display. Two of them resembled humans playing wind-instruments. The third was a defecating duck. Vaucanson was able to leverage the popularity of this display into fame and fortune, garnering plum ministerial appointments and a nomination to the Academy of Sciences (no small feat for an artisan).

Riskin presents one possibility of why these automata were so popular: "...their value as amusements lay principally in their dramatization of a philosophical problem that preoccupied audiences of workers, philosophers, and kings: the problem of whether human and animal functions were essentially mechanical." (Riskin, p. 601)

His work should not just be reduced to a mechanistic analysis of life and art:

"It seems to me, on the contrary, that the automata epressed, not mechanistic conviction, but the tug-of-war between such conviction and its antithesis. By building a machine that played the flute and another that shat, and placing them alongside each other, Vaucanson, rather than demonstrating the equivalence of art and shit as the products of mechanical processes, was testing the capacity of each, the artists and the organic product, to distinguish the creatures that produced them from machines. In other words, I find the most striking feature of Vaucanson's automata to have been their simultaneous enactment of both the sameness and the incomparability of life and machinery." (Riskin, p. 610)

Fryer and Marshall provide an analysis of Vaucanson's motives in creating the "defecating duck." They maintain that his goals extended beyond entertainment to include an exploration the basic premises of scientific modelling.

Bedini notes that both Ramelli and de Caus were influenced by Hero. He also calims that the waterworks of the chateau at Heilbrunn, built for the Archbishop Marcus Sitticus in about 1646, was based on the designs of de Caus.


Bedini, Silvio A. (1964). "The Role of Automata in the History of Technology." Technology and Culture. 5.1: 24-42.

Fryer, David M. and John C. Marshall (1979). "The Motives of Jacques de Vaucanson." Technology and Culture. 20.2: 257-269.

Price, Derek J. de Solla (1964). "Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy." Technology and Culture. 5.1: 9-23.

Riskin, Jessica (2003). "The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life." Critical Inquiry. 29.4: 599-633.

Schumaker, Wayne (1976). "Accounts of Marvelous Machines in the Renaissance." Thought. 51.202: 255-270.


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